In a less politically correct time, people like Bill Lueders were known as newspapermen. Bill's latest column, "For the love of newspapers," caught my eye. It's quite possible that the business model upon which the newspaper industry was built has fallen apart and can't be pieced back together. But Bill is right . . . God help us if we don't invent a new business model or otherwise fight for the survival of the news business.
It is hard to imagine how democracy works without a free and tenacious press. That "press" does not necessarily have to be ink on newsprint, but it absolutely has to be more than entertainment clothed in the day's events. It has to be more than TV, talk radio and the blogosphere.
Just as dissent is the highest form of patriotism, relentless scrutiny of government is the greatest service to democracy. But there is a growing school of thought on the left that criticism of public officials and government is destructive. The line of thinking goes like this: Ever since the Reagan presidency (although some date it back to Goldwater), the right has battered government and has systematically worked to turn the American people against it. Against this backdrop, journalists and whistle blowers who call attention to wrongdoing by politicians or expose government corruption are now bizarrely seen as being in league with right-wingers who, as Grover Norquist summed up, want to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
What a load of crap.
First of all, when Ronald Reagan famously quipped that "the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,'" he was hardly a pioneer. Nor did it turn out that he was sincere. Reagan's record shows a sizable gap between his words and deeds. He did little to shrink government's girth. Federal spending as a percent of Gross Domestic Product actually was considerably lower under Clinton. Reagan's innovation was legitimizing the practice of spending like a drunken sailor while cutting taxes and running up huge debt.
In any case, Reagan did not invent or manufacture anti-government sentiment. Nor did Goldwater, for that matter. They merely recognized a prominent feature of the American political culture and exploited it, Reagan more successfully than Goldwater. But then Bill Proxmire, a Democrat, became a legend in Wisconsin politics mining the same terrain.
Proxmire understood the same thing Reagan did. A strong individualist streak runs through Americans. The well-defined sense of the commons that Europeans possess is missing here. Maybe it's because the United States are the offspring of rebellion, born from defiance of a king. Maybe it's because of the kind of people who were drawn to exploring the vast American frontier. Who knows. What's clear is that we're hard-wired to distrust government.
Trying to make Americans love or even like government is a fool's mission. It's like trying to make Yankee fans love the Red Sox. But hey, if the Red Sox fall out of contention and the Yankees are locked in a close race with, say, the Tampa Bay Rays, you think Yankee fans aren't going to root like crazy for the Sox to beat the Rays? They won't do it because they love the Red Sox, they'll do it because they need the Red Sox. Americans are like that about government. When times are tough and our backs are against the wall, government can come in pretty handy. What's called the "Greatest Generation" is the product of just such experience. But even the trauma of the Great Depression and the second world war could not permanently extinguish the strong sense of individualism that underlies the widespread wariness toward government.
Building trust of and support for government by being less vigilant and less vociferous critics of government is similarly a fool's mission. If building a "government is good" movement depends on looking the other way when political corruption is visible or excusing government foul-ups, then such a movement is doomed before it begins.
There's only one way to boost public confidence in government: Make it work better.
And to make it work better, there's one ingredient that surely needs to be in the recipe: Make sure government officials know their every move is being watched.
Which is why we need newspapers, or something that is their equal.