The vanishing politician and journalist

Sam Smith – Depending on whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, either Barack Obama or the Tea Party crowd may seem terminally insane.

There is, however, a third alternative: that we’ve all gone a little nuts. A dysfunctional family with 300 million siblings.

It is tempting to choose sides when you see a woman interviewed by Greg Kaufmann of the Nation claiming that Obama’s parents and his grandparents were communists. I don’t believe even Joe McCarthy went that far.

On the other hand, the man of such allegedly dubious descent is also the one who has spent more federal funds than anyone in our history bailing out the fattest cats in the country…

Think of it this way. You have been wrongly mistreated by your boss. You come home and have six whiskeys and don’t show up for work for a week. Not a wise move, but the fact is that your boss did mistreat you. In other words, your poor reaction is not exculpation for the cause. The same is true for the Tea Party and what’s going on in Washington. Under stress, people do strange things.

I learned long ago that this is a hazardous argument to make. David Carr, then editor of Washington City Paper, called me up about something. In the course of the interview, I mentioned that I had begun in journalism covering national affairs and then had started a community newspaper. One of the things I had to learn was not to treat the activists in the neighborhood as roughly as I had senators or cabinet members. Carr got furious with me, called me condescending, and ended the interview.

It was a sign that I was getting out of touch with the direction of journalism. I had joined it as a trade or a craft, at a time when over half the reporters in the country only had a high school education. One of the assumptions was that reporters identified with the little guys and helped defend them against the trouble caused by the big guys. But now journalism had joined the big guys and so the unpowerful had shifted from being journalism’s main client to being just another of its targets.

I wasn’t – and still aren’t – ready to join. And so despite my substantial differences with the Tea Party, they’re far from the top of my complaint list, well under, say, journalists who never explained to them what was really going on and liberals who would put up with anything as long as Barack Obama did it.

A couple of decades ago I described it this way, “This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and, I would argue, more constructive journalistic role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.”

You can’t get much further from Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews than that. It describes an intermediary role for the journalist – finding connections between the grandiosity of policy or public events and the quiet humanity of private life.

Something similar has happened to politicians. They, too, once saw their role as to help connect the individual to the collective, to translate the obscurities of policy, to represent the small before the grand, and to serve as an ambassador from their district to whatever larger group they had been chosen to join.

But much has changed: the rise of the mass media, the centralization of corporate power, the replacement of votes with dollars as the driving force in elections, and a general disintegration of both the reality of, and appreciation for, community.

The typical politician no longer represents a constituency, but contributors.

The typical constituency is not a community to serve, but just another market to sell to.

For all practical purposes, the politician – as a true representative of a group of citizens – has largely vanished, just as has the reporter serving as a true intermediary for the public.

The public is thus left on its own, flailing about with little assistance from those who once aided them. It is small wonder that strange things happen.

Or that some find comfort in misdirected anger, just as in a dysfunctional family.

But the answer is not to trade more misdirected anger, but in public figures – in politics, the media and other places – who can help us all find again the trail we have lost. Those who speak truth to power, and common sense to those without it. And who save their anger for those with the most ability to do something about it all.

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