A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
John B. is the city solicitor of a growing suburban city. The city is contemplating the use of eminent domain to build a new school. His job is to determine if there are any impediments to the titles of the properties involved. John B. is also an agent of a Richmond, Va., title insurance company. He determines that the city should buy title insurance to protect itself and he just happens to be able to handle it.
The zoning board of a small rural town is evenly divided over whether to grant a variance that would allow a low-end discount store to open for business in a mixed-used neighborhood. Some members feel it would open the town to strip-mall development, setting a precedent, and would devalue nearby residential properties. Would the developer be given a tax abatement? Would the assessments of nearby properties be lowered to reflect the losses in property values they have suffered?
The zoning and planning boards of a mid-sized city are deep in closed-door deliberations with a corporation that wants to build a food-packaging plant in the midst of a suburban residential neighborhod. It would create many low-wage jobs and a few managerial salaries. The city is offering a 20-year tax abatement to the corporation to attract it. The plant’s presence would increase such costs to the city as street lighting, water supply, sewer service, highway maintenance, policing and fire safety. These costs would be passed on to the city’s largely residential tax base. The public remains in the dark about these negotiations, which have been going on for two years.
What we are looking at here is one of the biggest stories in American history. It is the story of a gateway swung wide open to hometown corruption and malfeasance. But the real story is that the corruption is not being covered because we no longer have a vigilant hometown press. We have instead the kind of press consolidated by corporatists like Bill Clinton, who while president signed the calamitous 1996 Telecommunications Act that helped put the entire American media establishment in the hands of five Citizens Kane.
Until the 1960s America had independent newspapers in many towns and cities. Their owners lived in those communities and were answerable to them. The owners cared about those communities. Their reporters heard rumors and checked them out. They received tips that sometimes even evolved into Pulitzer Prize stories. All that has been swept away by the corporatization of American society. Trivia and wire copy have supplanted local reportage. Local reportage has become incident reportage, mere recountings of events. Inquiry and investigation are things of the past while pension plans are looted and reporting staffs are cut to the bone.
Take Exhibit A. A diligent reporter discovered that properties taken by eminent domain do not require title insurance and few municipalities would bother with such an expense once they had exercised eminent domain. A diligent reporter learned from reputable legal authorities that John B. was in breach of his responsibilities as the city’s solicitor and was indeed swindling the city. A good reporter’s stories put the swindler in jail.
Tipsters might have told a reporter, if there had been one, that the chairman of Exhibit B’s zoning board had a new luxury car, started sending a son to a college his father could hardly afford as the manager of a fuel supply company, and was taking expensive vacations, all after breaking a zoning board deadlock in favor of the discount store. The reporter would then have spent many days trying to figure out how to write a story on such circumstantial evidence. But he would figure it out, because it’s a reportable story and it does raise serious ethical questions. The problem is that we don’t have such reporters any more, or media to handle their stories.
Exhibit C embodies the wholesale sellout of hundreds of property owners and taxpayers whose property values would nosedive once a factory is planted in their midst—a factory that pays no property taxes for 20 years. The ethical considerations are mind-blowing. Either the local absentee-owned excuse for a newspaper knows about it and is keeping quiet or it doesn’t know about it because it it is only pretending to cover the region. In either case, taxpayers are being betrayed and swindled.
All three exhibits are based on real events that suggest the magnitude of the problem we are confronting as a society in the wake of the collapse of a local press. All stories are ultimately local. But the press, now compacted into media giants that may as well be telephone trees to the average American, would have us believe that the big story is Washington. The federal government is too big, we hear. The federal government is overtaxing us, we hear. Never mind that the federal government has been shrinking for more than six years. Never mind that federal taxes amount to little compared to the confiscatory property taxes Americans are paying to support local buddy-employment schemes. Never mind that local corruption is a far bigger story than the stories we are being told. The biggest story we are not being told is the subversion of the entire press establishment—the Fourth Estate, which the founding fathers expected would keep government honest.
The reason Americans don’t understand the significance of this tragedy is that there is no press willing to tell them. An entire generation has grown up thinking that what we see is what the press is supposed to do. They don’t remember a great Baltimore Sun, Providence Journal, Louisville Courier-Journal, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Milwaukee Journal doing the job the way the founders envisioned. They don’t remember how breathtaking it was to see scoundrels like Spiro T. Agnew, when he was Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland, being called the crook he was by The Baltimore Sun and finally forced to resign as Vice President of the country. They don’t remember being shown how crooked he was. They don’t remember how people lined up outside news kiosks in Washington each day to see the then-great Washington Post expose the Watergate scandal blow by blow.
They don’t remember what it was like to live in towns where it was hard for the amoral to steal the public blind and loot local government. And because they don’t remember they don’t care. Because they don’t care, American governance is circling the drain.
There are remedies. Vox Populi, for example, is part of a growing Fifth Estate in cyberspace, challenging authorized versions, holding the media’s feet to the fire, maintaining a bullshit detector. For 26 years, since the birth of the Internet, we have had a growing ability to hold the press accountable for its manipulations. What happened, for example, to the Libor interbank rate-fixing story, to the scholarly report finding that insider trading is the rule in the our markets, not the exception? We are asking such questions on the Internet. We are fishing for answers. We are weighing opposing stories and evaluating them. We have never been able to do that before. We always had to count on a handful of newspapers and magazines to do that for us. We are able for the first time in history to readily access foreign media.
Our shrunken, craven media establishment hates this. That is why the press lords besiege the Federal Communications Commission to give them control of our access to the Internet. It isn’t just crappy service and high service fees they’re after, they’re also after hamstringing our ability to challenge their authority. Barack Obama has executed a 180 on net neutrality because the Fifth Estate has called his bluff, while the Fourth Estate encouraged him to sell us out.
More can be done. Much more. We can form little groups in every community to exercise our right to public records. Dirty government always leaves a paper trail, as the great investigative journalist I.F. Stone told us. We can look for the forensic accountants among us to examine local municipal and school budgets. We can encourage retired doctors and nurses to examine local health and nursing care. We can recruit retired teachers, lawyers, and all manner of other people to engage in citizen journalism. They can build their own websites and get the job done, the job the press is no longer doing. It doesn’t matter how well their stories are written. It matters that they are written at all.
Vibrant examples of citizen journalism are emerging. An exciting example is unfolding in the reimagined city of Hudson, New York, about 120 miles north of New York City. This old whaling city, founded by Nantucket Quakers, was decimated by the development of a ruckus of malls in the surrounding town of Greenport, which had been rural. Little regional planning led to a near-death experience for Hudson’s once self-sufficient business community, a phenomenon repeated throughout the country.
Here a project that can be easily duplicated anywhere in the United States called Imby provides a platform for online stories, images and videos. Imby allows the people of the area to exchange information, raise issues, ask questions, and share creative projects. Its potential is enormous. For example, a citizen sees that someone wearing work boots has walked over wet yellow curb-marker paint and left footprints up and down Warren Street, the city’s main street. The next thing you know the pictures are on Imby. Someone spray paints a railroad bridge near the county courthouse with grafitti; there it is on Imby. And what if someone in the future sees an instance of police abuse? It may end up on Imby. Or, someone has creative thoughts about a municipal issue, criticism of a city council decision—it all ends up on Imby, a true public forum as well as a citizen newspaper.
It may not seem so, but this is a revolution, a revolution the media giants hate with all their hearts, because it takes the gatekeeping and the tastemaking out of their hands and puts it in ours. When you read about Comcast trying to swallow Time Warner Cable whole, think of Imby. When you read about media giants trying to bribe Congress to give them control of how we use the Internet, think of Imby. When you read about net neutrality, think of Imby. This is what is at stake. Imby is doing the job the Fourth Estate abdicated. Apologists blamed evening traffic, changing habits, the web, anything they could think of for the demise of the news industry, but at the end of the day greed had as much, perhaps even more to do with it than anything else. The industry was corporatized. The bean-counters gutted it, as they have gutted the book industry, and the result is a Fourth Estate golem without a heart and soul
The Gossips of Rivertown is another example of what can be done. Rivertown is one of the nicknames of Hudson, New York, an old whaling city about 120 miles north of New York City that has had to reinvent itself after being wrecked by corporatist malls in a neighboring town. The Gossips of Rivertown is trying to do what the local newspaper only halfheartedly and half-assedly does. There are many such blogs around the country. They should be networking and encouraging members of the community to join them.
At the end of the day, in the twilight of the newspaper industry, it just might be possible to create community reportage that will be better than anything we’ve had before. It just might be possible for the Fifth Estate to rescue Main Street from the corruption the Fourth Estate is doing everything in its power to ignore.
© Copyright Djelloul Marbrook 2015
Djelloul Marbrook worked as a Navy journalist and photographer, as a reporter-photographer and bureau manager for The Providence Journal, executive metro editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, copy editor for The Baltimore Sun, Sunday managing editor for The Winston-Salem Journal-Sentinel, writer for the National Journal, copy editor for The Washington Star, and executive editor for six Media News daily newspapers in Ohio and two daily newspapers in New Jersey. He also co-founded Education Funding News, a Washington-based, newsletter about federal involvement in education.