by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
January 9, 2006
A ROGUE CONGRESSMAN, OUTRAGES, AND THE MEDIA
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 9, 2006 -- Sorry, but I can't seem to keep up with all the scandals. It's almost more than the human mind can retain. It's also been a real lesson in what is best and what is worst about the mass media.
To give you an example, there's a local Republican congressman who took a personal payment of $23,000 and promptly did some substantial favors for his patron. He's hardly even on the radar screen. And, this guy is a danger to the safety of everyone down here in the southbay, but the Democrats are to blame for it. But more about Dana Rohrabacher, the Democrats who handed L.A. Harbor over to him and media indifference a bit later.
Just to summarize a few of the recent scandals, guilty pleas, cover-ups becoming uncovered, and sometimes horrifying revelations, let's merely try to make a list. I'm sure I will forget some, but that is an excusable lapse once we consider the length.
Scooter Libby indictment
You catch the drift. A whole network of wealthy, well-connected people have been doing favors for elected officials (the latter trying to live like they are wealthy), and together they have been caught up in revelations of graft, corruption and bribery. This list doesn't even cover the governmental malfeasance and incompetence that has occurred on a scale so large that it is hard to imagine, much less chronicle.
And we haven't even mentioned the ongoing federal grand jury investigation that may bring down Karl Rove, the infighting that led to inadequate levees in New Orleans or the problems with the Iraq occupation.
Then there's that little issue about how homeland security funds have been misspent, particularly for those of us who live near a petrochemical plant, a refinery or a port (but more about Congressman Dana Rohrabacher later).
So that's a capsule summary of events in the nation that reelected George W. Bush to the presidency and sent Republican majorities to the House and the Senate. It's almost a replay of the Nixon years, except that the corruption this time around is also to be found in the House of Representatives.
What's curious this time around is how the mass media have been so flaccid in responding. It's not like the facts have suddenly been brought to light after a long period of peace and happiness. The fact that Tom DeLay ran the congress like a crooked thug was documented again and again. It is no secret that lobbying firms were ordered to hire Republicans, that corporate donors were told to limit their donations to Democrats and that access to power was granted to those bringing buckets of money.
We have been chronicling this ongoing story in American Reporter by reference to the way it was handled early and well by the Washington Monthly magazine, Mediamatters.org and a few radio networks. Meanwhile, the major newspapers sometimes did a good job of digging out the facts, only to present them in such a dispassionate way that the public scarcely took notice.
Things seem to be changing. The Washington Post and the New York Times continue a flurry of news stories about Bush administration activities. Scandal is in the air. Blood is in the water. The mainstream press is starting to grow back some teeth. At least we can hope this is the case, even if the grand old tradition of crusading journalism made famous a century ago has not come back in all its tawdry glory.
As to the difference between 2006 and, let's say, 2003, about the only thing new is that reporters have a few strong words to hang their stories around: indictment, fraud, bribery, conspiracy, guilty. It's not as though the same activities weren't going on in 2001 or 2002, but until recently, we have been deluged with stories about pretty white women gone missing.
Most of the current scandal-mongering is about criminal acts. It's the smaller part of the real scandal. The fact that the Republican Party took a functional government and turned it into a private money machine should have been the main story.
It is also true that we only know about these facts through the activities of the working press. The problem is that even as the press has served up a diet of disturbing facts, it lacks the proper voice or gumption to complete the argument.
One has only to compare newspaper writing to magazine writing, or even to amateur blogging, to understand the difference. You need to finish the story, to take the facts where they want to lead. In other words, newspapers in the past not only had the ability to find and publish facts, but also had a point of view to hang them around. Newspapers proudly communicated their political principles. We may not have agreed with what the Chicago Tribune had to say, but we knew where it stood.
The fact that major newspapers of the current generation have not been leading a crusade for good government is tragic, but also understandable. They don't know how to do it anymore. People who work within the mainstream media couldn't carry out that kind of crusade even if they wanted. They don't have a system that allows for it.
Remember, for example, how the Los Angeles Times recently made public its standards for reporters? Reporters are instructed that the story is to be written in such a way that the reader won't know the reporter's personal opinion. In science or in magazine journalism, this would be nonsensical. In blogging it would be boring. In newspapers it is bland.
So here we are, up to our ears in spectacular findings, and nary an exclamation point to be seen. The scandals circulating around us would be red meat for the reporters of an earlier day. Unfortunately, the current generation seem to be vegetarians.
An illustrative story: Not long ago, the congressman from California's 46th district, Dana Rohrabacher, sold an option on a screenplay to a producer named Joseph Medawar for $23,000. Rohrabacher then introduced Medawar to other members of congress, which gave the producer a chance to ask for special favors which apparently included access to government information.
In late 2005, Medawar was indicted on charges that he swindled investors out of $5.5 million. Medawar told his victims that he was doing a tv series about the Dept. of Homeland Security, but actually was using the money to maintain his expensive lifestyle. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Rohrabacher was paid out of that illicitly obtained money.
Rohrabacher is reportedly considering giving back the $23,000, but only if Medawar is convicted.
Rohrabacher made the news more recently by his agonizing decision (or so it would seem) to give back money donated by Jack Abramoff. At first, Rohrabacher said he wouldn't. Then he said he would. (Is this what we call a "flip-flop"?)
As to the effect that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has on my safety, and how the Democratic Party is culpable in the damage that has been done, consider the rest of this story.
In 2001, the California legislature did its once-per-decade redistricting. Creating district maps that were accurately described as an "incumbency protection act," the legislature twisted and tortured geography to create a safe district for Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harmon (now representing district 36). Harmon had fought and won several very close elections, took a term off to lose the gubernatorial primary, then came back to win a congressional seat once more. Apparently this took too much effort, and the legislators decided to make things easier.
The problem for Harmon was all those rich, conservative folks up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula who vote Republican. PV (as locals call it) is on the southern edge of what used to be the Harmon district. Somehow, the state lawmakers had to move PV into another district and simultaneously find Democratic voters for Harmon. What was done gives new depth and meaning to the term gerrymander.
The Democrats took PV and attached it to a congressional district in another county through a narrow strip. (Somehow, the 9 million Los Angeles County residents weren't enough, so they had to find an Orange County connection.) For Harmon, they drew a fishhook around PV and ran the district through much, but not all, of the port city, San Pedro. The Port of Los Angeles and the neighboring Port of Long Beach were attached to Dana Rohrabacher's Orange County district.
Now, PV is connected to the rest of its Orange County congressional district through a link that is as little as one or two blocks wide (at least on land - for a swimmer it would be wider), and runs for miles along the water's edge.
So the Democratic Party handed the seaports over to Republican legislative control. And compared to the state of Wyoming, we get next to nothing in funding to prevent terrorist attacks, because that is how the Republican Party divvied things up. And Dana Rohrabacher evidently doesn't care.
And the three major newspapers that cover the twin ports have demonstrated a minimal level of concern. Yes, they reported on the outrageous gerrymandering that went on in the redistricting process, but they didn't exactly supply leadership. Yes, they report on the shortage of funding. But no, they don't get to the real point - the serious point - by attacking the political system that created the problem. To use the now acceptable cliche, the dots are all there, but the Los Angeles Times, Daily Breeze, and Long Beach Press Telegram don't quite connect them up the way they could.
And the fact that our lives depend on a clown like Dana Rohrabacher should be the biggest scandal of all. There are bloody fingerprints, Democrat and Republican alike, all over it, but somehow it doesn't seem to make it onto the front page.
Don't blame the reporter if you don't like the headline. Headlines and captions are typically assigned to lower-ranking members of the editorial staff.
My all time favorite for the single most boring headline was this one: "Lawn Bowling Tournament Continues."
The contest for most edifying photo caption of the year was hard fought, but the winning entry comes from the July 19, 2005 Los Angeles Daily Breeze: "Paris Hilton isn't afraid to wear white shoes. In fact, she's one of the trendsetters."