Why we must have a tough Fourth Estate

PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 September 2018

President Donald J. Trump. Post via Getty Images)

President Donald J. Trump. Post via Getty Images)

2018 The Washington Post

Bonnie Greer discusses whether the media needs regulating, or whether the politicians do.

I grew up in a hard politics town.

Richard J Daley, the mayor for most of the time I lived in my hometown – almost 30 years – had been in the role for so long, that as a kid I thought that ‘Mayor’ was his first name.

The late Mike Royko, one of the hardboiled types immortalised in plays like The Front Page wrote a book about the mayor called The Boss.

But that was after Daley was dead.

Politicians were not people to like and certainly not to ‘follow’. If you said that you ‘followed’ a politician, you’d be laughed out of town. Nobody looked up to any official in the Chicago of the late 1950s to early 1970s that I grew up in. Why would we do that?

We all talked like characters in a 
David Mamet play. The truth is he wrote like we talked. I know because briefly, before he got big, he was my play-writing teacher. If a politician used lofty language etc, we would walk away. Which was why I was distrustful of Barack Obama. He had an accent. He sounded ‘phony’, the big crime in Chicago. Then I heard Michelle – Chicago – and I knew that if he had married her, he was OK. These things are bred in the bone and hard to shake.

Politics was about winning elections and delivering. The Democratic Party in Chicago was called “The Machine” because it turned out votes and could even make or break a president. By fair means or foul.

“The Machine” was largely Irish, and they had a St Patrick’s Day Parade that would put the Kremlin’s May Day celebrations in the shade. Everybody was Irish on St Paddy’s and you were required to put an ‘O’ before your name. They even turned the sluggish and once-mighty Chicago River green for the day, an abomination no one dared complain about.

We all hated the Daley who weaponised the Police Department against African Americans, Latinos and just about anyone else he detested/feared. If you wanted to be a different politician – ie an honest one – you had to know the deal. The deal: nobody cries.

Chicago political journalism had one goal – “To nail the bum,” meaning keep politicians in check. If a politico could not/would not talk to reporters; if they could not/would not handle door-stepping or shouts in their face, the press shut down. If you got elected, you were expected to understand that the job of the press was to give you a hard time. Everybody had a job to do and they did it. Nobody whined.

Following leaders was about religion.

Chicago left the homilies, sermons and admonitions to the priests. I am not saying that this is good or right or desirable. It was just what I grew up in.

My point is the politics and the politicians and the press: Everybody had a job to do and they did it. Nobody whined.

In New York, my other second city in the 1980s, we had a mayor who was New York City Jewish all the way. His voice was musical with its Yiddish inflections, and he too was very direct in his dealings with press. Many of them hated him and tried various and sundry means to get him thrown out. But they all understood that their position was adversarial. If a politician caught a paper in a lie, they sued. Meanwhile the politics continued and the journalism too.

Nixon hated the press. He demanded that certain papers not be invited anywhere near him, and if they were, it had to be brief. The beauty of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein taking him down, was that it was two journalists who did it. For a while my friends and I wanted to switch from being civil rights lawyers to investigative reporters going after politicians. This seemed like a worthwhile thing to do.

Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Latina who beat a multi-term incumbent for the Democratic Party‘s nomination for congress, recently banned the press from a public event. She explained that the community’s population is “50% immigrant” and she wanted to create a “town hall... designed for residents to feel safe discussing sensitive issues in a threatening political time. We indicated previously that it would be closed to press”.

She did. But they had no obligation to heed her request. Their job was to cover her and report back to the public because what she now says and what she does now is important. There are no safe spaces for politicians. And there should not be. The exposure, the hassles, the perceived unfairness is one of the trade-offs: for power. That ability to create change.

Political journalism can slant: Left; Right; Middle; Nihil. Because that is the way voters are. A right-wing paper will not give a left-wing politician a break and vice versa. Surely we all know this. There is something despicable about protecting a politician from criticism, ridicule; even slant. They are not people like us. They have to be stronger and braver and clearer. They have to display clarity and purpose and vigour. Because when they are they create clarity. And clarity is one of the bulwarks against tyranny. Which is why 300 America papers came out to protest against Donald Trump and his catchphrase “fake news”.

To the question ‘should newspapers have more regulation?’ I would rather have the politicians and their advisors, shills and cheerleaders regulated. They can make or break our lives.

Mike Royko was disgusted at the arrival of Princess Diana in Chicago for a few days in the 1990s. Everybody adored her and she gathered crowds wherever she went. Royko wrote a blistering piece in which he asked the city what had happened to it. “I’ve never understood why anyone is interested in all that English royalty stuff... What the hell do we care about some so-called royal family? What is this, some kind of hick town?”

Political journalism – when it is at its best – prevents “hick towns” of the mind and of the soul. Too many of us are inhabiting them now.

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