Truth to Power


Managing Editor Ronni Mott

I spent last weekend in New Orleans at the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention. It was held in the posh Ritz Carlton in the heart of the city's business district, and I was challenged trying to reconcile our "alternative" moniker with the neat little pyramids of individually rolled cloth hand towels by each sink in the ladies' rooms.

I was expecting a group of passionate world changers. Instead, the overwhelmingly Caucasian group's lunch conversation leaned toward aged receivables and sales targets, and the breakout sessions ran heavily toward technology, with little emphasis on the industry's historic rallying cry: telling truth to power.

The association is 34 years old. Some of the attendees--editors, journalists, graphic designers, sales reps and publishers and the like--were considerably younger than 34 with, I suspect, little knowledge of why the industry came about in the first place. I suspect lots of folks came to New Orleans to party. I don't blame them: I wasn't always one to avoid a night of dancing and drinking.

I was born at the tail-wagging end of the baby-boom generation. Today, we are in our 50s, 60s and 70s. The bright torch of 1960s and '70s radicalism that fueled the civil rights, anti-war, women's and other "rights" movements (and alternative weeklies) has dimmed and softened, much like our eyesight, bellies and breasts. We've mostly handed our radicalism to those who, as one attendee put it, are "too old to live on Ramen noodles" in their mid-30s. Most of my generation, it seems, is too concerned with upside-down mortgages, the kids' college tuition and our retirement accounts to be engaged in radical activities.

Those who live paycheck to paycheck, who have never been able to accumulate the kind of savings that retirement demands or whose savings have been wiped out by the Great Recession (I'm pretty sure that covers about 75 percent of us), are staring at a life where the proposed lack of any security, social or otherwise, means they'll be working until the day they drop. And now, the cabal at the U.S. Capitol is seriously considering cutting even the meager safety nets of Social Security and Medicare while again lowering tax rates for corporations and the wealthiest Americans.

Jake Tapper, ABC's senior White House correspondent, spoke on Saturday. Why have a "lamestream" reporter at an alternative press gathering? Tapper got his start at an alternative paper, the Washington City Paper. Tapper gave a humorous and inspiring talk--Independent and Fearless Journalism Needed--about why papers like the Jackson Free Press are still relevant, perhaps now more than ever.

In the Q&A that followed, someone asked him what is going on with the debt ceiling and budget talks.

Tapper was frank. He admitted that no deal is likely to be struck until mere moments before the deadline and the world economy crashes. That's inevitable in these political stalemates, he said. He wouldn't have been in New Orleans if there was a chance in Hades that a breakthrough would happen soon.

"Whatever they finally agree on, it'll be easier to vote against it than for it," he said. Repeatedly, he stated that D.C. is a "very dysfunctional town." He also used the word "cesspool."

The mainstream press hasn't done a good job explaining the issues surrounding the debt ceiling or the spending/revenue debate, he admitted, including the fact that six out of 10 Americans support tax increases for corporations and those in the top two tax brackets. Those increases, advocated by the president, caused House Speaker John Boehner to walk out of talks Friday. Boehner "does not control his caucus," Tapper said. His base, Tea Party Republicans who seem to have no sense of history or economic reality, pushes him into the far right-hand corner.

Tapper didn't limit his criticism to Republicans, nor did the president escape his barbs. Clearly, he believes that Washington politicians are engaged in an irresponsible morass of posturing, finger-pointing and ideological stubbornness. He's not the only one. The consequences of this D.C. mess could be grim regardless of their direction.

During the "Free Speech" luncheon after Tapper's presentation, Jose Ruben Zamora from Guatemala took the podium. Zamora has repeatedly put his life on the line for a free and independent press. During his 30-year career, Guatemalan government and drug thugs have beaten him, attacked him and his family, and blown up his car, among other horrors. He and his reporters regularly receive death threats, and some have had to flee the country. Why? Because Zamora's newspapers (his most recent is simply called El Periodico--The Paper) report on government corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations.

Zamora put the journalist's role into stark perspective: Without a free and independent press, those without power--financial, political or otherwise--have little protection from those with power. That's about as true as it gets. Journalism that is not dependent, or more precisely, not beholden to a power structure is one of the few things standing between the powerful and the powerless. Corporate-owned "infotainment" news is narrow and one-sided because its owners--multinational corporations whose mandates are profits, not journalism--dictate its ethics.

But journalists can't and don't do their jobs alone. Without a motivated citizenry, "speaking truth to power" becomes an ineffective and even dangerous echo chamber.

The American people (as in "We the") are angry and frustrated by the extreme ideological partisanship of their leaders. In the last two major elections, 2008 and 2010, the people flipped the Washington power structure on its head. Whether either set of fed-up voters was wise is a question for history; however, those elections demonstrated citizen clout. And we can do it again.

It's disturbing to see the sense of resignation in the upcoming Mississippi elections: ultra-conservative Tea Party Republicans, I hear, have many races sewn up. That could be really bad news for progressives. If it is for you, this is not the time to sit back in defeat.

Whatever your age or background, remember the power that the people have demonstrated before. Stand up. Get involved. Make your voice heard. Then cast your ballot, especially if the outcome seems inevitable. Our leaders represent all of us, and it's up to us to deliver that reminder with authority.


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