Forty-five years later

Sam Smith, 2002 – Forty-five years ago this month I came back to my hometown of Washington at the age of 19 to work as a radio reporter. I returned to college in the fall with an offer of full-time employment upon graduation which I gladly accepted.

Since then I have covered more administrations than Helen Thomas – although from the street rather than from the West Wing. The street is a better vantage point because that’s where the news is.

Those in power make far less news than one might assume reading the paper or watching television. This is because they are mainly interested in preserving the system that gave them power in the first place. News implies that something has changed.

Even wars are better covered in the field than in the Pentagon press room, which is why the government tries so hard to keep journalists away from the front and at the Pentagon. Russell Baker once said of his years in Washington that he felt he was serving as a megaphone for fraud.

I have sometimes wondered whether, if Jesus were to return to earth, anyone would notice. I have concluded that the best he would rate would be occasional mention as a “Christian activist,” “a gadfly,” or perhaps even a “conspiracy theorist.”

Which is one of the reasons being an alternative journalist has been so much fun. You are still allowed to go after the news. In fact, most of history’s major changes during my lifetime have been far better covered by those outside the media establishment. Not that it doesn’t catch up eventually, but it’s a bit like the late Senator Phil Hart’s definition of the Senate: a place that does things 20 years after it should have.

Here are just a few of the stories on which the major media was scooped, not just by days but by years: the import of the civil rights, black power, women’s, gay, and other movements; the impossibility of winning the Vietnam war; the level of anger in the urban ghettos; global warming; the futility of the war on drugs; the loss of American democracy and constitutional rights; the many downsides of globalization; the myopia of our anti-Arab policies; the true nature of the 1990s economic bubble. And so forth. . . .

In many of these cases, the major media went far further than mere non-feasance. It provided moral cover for segregationists and corrupt politicians. It helped discrimination gain tenure. It repeatedly excused economic inequities as a natural state or presented them as containing some yet to be revealed magic. It perpetuated myths about drugs and their proper treatment that have caused incalculable pain and death. It paraded as heroes some of the most corrupt figures, corporations, and institutions of our time. It promoted economic lies that served the interests of only a tiny number of the rich and powerful. And perhaps most shamefully, it helped the recalcitrant and the reckless deny the dreadful damage that our way of living was doing to our planet.

Further, and in direct contradiction to its own myths about itself, the major media dismissed, ignored, or blacklisted voices that might have raised some of these issues far earlier and with a much greater audience.

Recently, much of the media seems to have decided that news isn’t real at all, but only another form of entertainment. Thus we find Ashley Banfield, with unconscious accuracy, being featured in her reports as “on location,” a phrase once reserved for the making of make-believe.

One of the advantages of being in the journalistic underground is that your clip file is far less embarrassing than those of more conventional scribes. It is not that you were so prescient; it’s only that history seldom comes totally by surprise and the first job of a journalist is to listen well and then write it down. My personal rule of journalism is this: if I learn something and find myself saying, “Holy shit!” – I know it’s probably news.

If, on the other hand, you spend your time transmitting official assurances of tranquility, self-interested declarations of impending nirvana, unsupported suppositions in the drag of fact, or personal judgments more worthy of a rock groupie than of a skeptical observer, then what you have written will eventually seem childish or stupid.

Of course, alternative journalists would be nothing without alternative readers and I consider myself blessed with as fine a lot as one could seek. Thus I dedicate my future efforts as with those of the past, to – in the words of Charles Lamb – “the friendly and judicious reader who will take these papers as they were meant; not understanding everything perversely in the absolute and literal sense, but giving fair construction, as to an after-dinner conversation.”

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