IT'S TIME TO CRANK UP THE VOLUME
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 23, 2006 -- I sure would like to see some of that liberalism in the media that the right wing is always talking about, because right now, the mainstream has missed one of the best "gotcha" stories of all time.
As we discussed a while back, a "gotcha" is when a reporter sticks a microphone in somebody's face and asks, "We have you on tape stealing $200. What do you have to say for yourself?" It is the moment when the crook is confronted with the evidence. Some pretend ignorance; some confess, and a few pretend contrition. It isn't very often that a petty criminal, caught in the act, argues that it is OK because everybody else does it.
Television and print reporters are willing to engage in "gotcha" when the criminal is some low-paid parking attendant sticking a few coins in his sock. For some reason, the press has been having cold feet when it comes to dealing with a set of crimes that are enormously more dangerous to our way of life.
This week, the guilty parties facing the camera are the congressional Republicans. Confronted with admissions from Jack Abramoff and others, the R's have come up with two responses. The first response, destined to crash and burn, is that the scandal is a bipartisan issue. Everybody else does it. If the American people buy into this line, it will prove that Lincoln was wrong, and that you can fool all of the people all of the time. More likely, Lincoln will be proved right, and only a small fraction of the people will stay fooled.
The other response is the more laughable. Caught in the headlights as it were, Republicans this week unveiled their proposal to clean up the system. It involves tighter controls on the gifts, drinks, dinners and trips that lobbyists lavish on congressmen. Of course the plan has a hole big enough to drive a Brink's truck through: According to the most recent explanations, a lobbyist has merely to present the congressman with a campaign donation at the same time, and all the booze and food will be acceptable under the law.
Faced with a scandal that potentially could cost their party control in the House, the Republicans have come up with this transparently nonsensical non-solution.
But it is the greater, deeper hypocrisy that the press has ignored.
So allow me to remind you. This is the party that has made a fetish out of "personal responsibility." You and I are supposed to earn a living rather than accept welfare from the state. We are supposed to avoid gambling and drinking and adultery. We are supposed to say no to mind altering substances.
In Republican Party doctrine, there is no room for anyone being a victim of his environment. But in being confronted with the evidence of their system-wide culpability, the Republicans have come up with their own version of societal guilt. Everybody does it; it's the system that is at fault; we will pass some new laws and everything can be fine again.
Admittedly, Republicans give themselves (but apparently only themselves) a certain amount of latitude with regard to several of the more minor vices. We have merely to mention oxycontin on the one hand, or Bill Bennett's gambling on the other, to make this point. And then there was the string of Republicans (Speakers of the House among them) who had their adultery scandals.
But enough about human frailty when it comes to drinkin' and wenchin' and cussin'. These are red-state-acceptable vices. What about the simple virtues like avoiding bribery, extortion, nepotism and fraud? When confronted with the clear-cut evidence of their systematic misconduct, the Republican leadership seems to have ranked these alongside having an extra scotch, the girl friend on the side or a Cuban cigar.
It won't be long before the Republicans defend their activities as victimless crimes.
But enough levity. To be blunt, the twofold message that ought to be coming out in our major newspapers is simple, but it has been curiously, infuriatingly missing from the working press and its editorial columns:
We don't need more laws regulating lobbying. We just need congressmen who demonstrate the most elementary morality and ethics.
Instead of creating more government regulation of the lobbying business, how about just saying no to unethical behavior?
Come on now - isn't this the party that keeps telling us, "We don't need more gun laws, we just need to enforce the ones we have?" Isn't this the party that hates regulation of businesses when it comes to pollution, hiring practices and worker safety?
The least the mainstream media can do is to confront the Republican leaders - and, therefore, to educate the voters - with this total hypocrisy over the personal responsibility issue. The 1994 Contract With American rings hollow nowadays. Republicans were going to restore honor and dignity to government. They were supposed to be the new broom, but they have gotten dirty themselves, and awfully fast.
In spite of how obvious this all is, editorial writers have been falling into the old cynical patterns. Instead of treating this as the record of unethical conduct and criminal activity, and as the specifically Republican scandal that it is, editorial writers have been treating it as fairly commonplace.
In so doing, the mainstream press reveals its own hypocrisy and cowardice. How can the publishers and editorial writers be unaware of the magnitude of the story? One has only to recall the Watergate crisis to understand the role the press could be playing now. It has yet to develop the attitude and the corresponding tone of voice that is appropriate to the situation.
The hypocrisy goes on and on: What are the proposed new regulations other than social engineering? Maybe it isn't the kind of social engineering that maintains unwed mothers on welfare, but it's still social engineering. Only this is social engineering that purports to modify the behavior of congressmen, at least those who are faced with the scary prospect of a $300 dinner and a campaign donation check.
Isn't this the party that keeps telling us how it is the party of personal responsibility, not social engineering?
Apparently the poor darlings on the right side of the aisle just can't behave themselves unless we enact another law to protect them from their own inner nature. They can't "just say no" to the twenty-thousand dollar vacations or the fancy dinners. They apparently need to be protected from their moral weaknesses by another government program, this one aimed at regulating the lobbying business.
The press and its editorial side have also dropped the ball on another potentially huge story. Remember that it wasn't just the elected representatives who couldn't turn down a dishonest dollar. Apparently their wives couldn't either. Again and again we have seen some congressman's wife getting paid tens of thousands of dollars by some lobbying firm or its captive tax-free foundation.
Our system makes a distinction between campaign donations (legal) and money that goes into the congressman's own pocket (illegal). I think it's a poor public policy that allows special interests to give a congressman what he really wants most, namely campaign cash, but it is legal for now. But what is a direct payment to a congressman's wife? How about calling it what it is - a bribe, pure and simple?
It's not that difficult a conclusion. The press should take the extra 30 seconds and think it through: These are not payments for legitimate services (and even if they were, it would still constitute an enormous conflict of interest). One congressional wife got paid $50,000 to make a list of congressmen's favorite charities. I'd have done it for half that much.
Sarcasm aside, this is a story that has been growing inch by inch. It requires somebody to put it together as one unified whole. It also requires the moral conviction to tell the story for what it really is, an example of organized crime in the most literal sense, played out at the cost and safety of the American people.
All this having been said, we are entitled to ask, "Why this failure on the part of the press?" In other words, this story is so obvious, it is a wonder that the major media haven't treated it as seriously as it deserves.
Now comes Joshua Micah Marshall to help us out. Posting on Jan. 22, 2006 to his blog talkingpointsmemo.com, Marshall treats the problem as, in effect, intimidation of reporters and writers. Although Marshall's piece is meant to respond to specific issues regarding the Washington Post and its Internet readers, it has enough broad applicability to be worthy of citing:
So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they'll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing "liberal bias." (Often, even that's not required.) Indeed, when you actually watch - from the inside - how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of "liberal bias."
Can this really be true?