The New Curmudgeon
"I don't believe for a moment you can function as an intelligent citizen by simply relying on television."
Timothy Russert, senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News, let slip those naughty words at the Theodore H. White seminar in Cambridge last November, reminding us that the average American family spends close to eight hours a day watching television.
There is our challenge, print brethren. How do we grab away a fraction of those tv hours now that the huffing and puffing over how we covered the Gulf war is subsiding?
I have a few story ideas which just might help recapture the print press's traditional agenda-setting role. The answer lies in the stories on which we choose to concentrate. They may be obvious but all are especially urgent, continuous and most do not require overseas travel.
Most important, all do "move the canoe on down the river toward a more perfect democracy," as former Chicago Tribune editor James D. Squires wrote the other day.
Start covering the United Nations. Remember that organization which George Bush and James Baker maumaued so brilliantly into supporting all-out war in Iraq?
Until the Bush/Baker forces went to the U.N., guess how many U.S. journalists covered the U.N. on a full-time basis. Fewer than 10. The number holds, even weeks after the ceasefire. This out of a worldwide total of 250 reporters accredited to the U.N.
Only the New York Times, Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Los Angeles Times and Knight-Ridder have full-time correspondents on the job there.
The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor and all the rest of the large metros that could afford it rely upon stringers or their New York bureau's general-assignment reporters, unless, of course, a crisis is developing. The head count comes from Louis Foy, president of the United Nations Correspondents Association.
This skeletal staffing exists at a time when the U.N. could move onto a new plateau after its pivotal role in the Gulf.
It is a time, too, when most U.N. agencies, those devoted to assistance to development, children, poverty, environment, population and UNESCO, all have been somewhat jeopardized by the U.N.-backed Gulf war. Important peacekeeping work is going on in those dark recesses. This should be covered, and it need not be boring. Yet only a handful of American editors think it is worth covering on a regular basis.
Start covering the global flow of arms. Wasn't the wholesale sale of arms and other lethal equipment by the superpowers to Saddam Hussein the underlying cause of the war against him? Now the flow is starting all over again. Let us not forget that, since 1980, the United States alone sent about $1.6 billion in arms and high-tech equipment to Saddam. One shipment of military goodies landed in Iraq just one day before we went to war against him -- our own weaponry. In the arms-selling frenzy, too, were Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and China. Talk about greed unlimited.
U.S. defense contractors, urged on by the president, already are lining up at the Pentagon begging for more contracts. If the contracts are not granted, they argue, thousands of jobs across America will disappear just when the recession is peaking. The shopping list of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates is estimated at an enticing $60 billion. The industrial military complex is in full cry.
Further south, several African countries are in desperate throes of famine and disease, yet they are unable to deal with their survival crises because they are bogged down in civil war, wars made possible by the import of foreign arms. Who will pressure the United States to refuse to send weapons that prolong wars which are killing millions on the world's poorest continent?
The flow of arms is a giant First, Second and Third World story. The flow can be controlled only if the press stays focused on its seminal evilness. There are enough culprits for all of us -- presidents and sheiks, tribal chiefs, Mafiosi, shady international businessmen, Pentagon and congressional dupes.
The Rockefeller Foundation is about to fund a global citizens network to monitor the flow of arms. What do you think? Isn't tracing the flow of arms a potent newspaper project? It is a cops-and-robbers story, too.
Watch the new arms build-up and renewed warfare among the armed services. It will be a fierce Pentagon story and, at the State Department, reporters will have their hands full keeping tabs on the new diplomatic debts the administration has incurred in the Mideast.
We suddenly have new, more demanding relationships with the state of Israel, with King Assad of Syria and, finally, with the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber Ahmed Jaber Sabah. This sheik, we remember, delayed return to his liberated city until royal accommodations suitable to his lifestyle could be arranged. This, while his subjects stumbled back, homeless and jobless. None are exactly in sync with the niceties of democratic life.
Dig out the total costs of the war. We still are not close to a realistic breakdown of military, U.S., and coalition lives lost. Our government has had great trouble facing the shocking number of Iraqi civilian women and children who were killed, and we do not know the cost for rebuilding Iraq or Kuwait.
Reaching this accounting will not be easy because the administration is not panting to advertise price tags, nor is Saddam Hussein, for different reasons.
Congressional Democrats will not help much either for the fear of again being tagged poor losers or worse. The public will demand the real cost figure, and only the press will force the answer.
The mayors of America will also press the issue. Already we hear their chant: "We spent X billion dollars liberating tiny Kuwait City halfway around the world, so how about spending a fraction of that amount to fight street crime, to liberate the homeless, and to improve our children's education in our cities?"
Focus on the domestic front as well as we did the war. Now that El Salvador, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama and the Gulf adventures are behind us, how long and how vigorously will our press concentrate on domestic issues?
The recession, crime, education, the environment, our mounting deficit, state tax increases everywhere, collapsing manufacturing base, bank failures -- they all take heavy lifting, lots of reporting, and creative writing to cover effectively. The press is a little like most presidents: They prefer foreign to domestic work. It is easier. Will the press lead or follow again? Don't laugh at comedian Andy Valvur's fantasy:
"I want George Bush to interrupt the Lakers-Knicks game to tell me that, effective immediately, he is instituting a national health care program and that he knows that the American people are with him and understand why we have to take this drastic action . . . .
"I want Peter Arnett to give me live updates from a rooftop in the South Bronx as he tells me that the night sky is lit up with streetlights that work and, most of all, I want Peter Jennings to tell me it's really happening."
Don't laugh either at the fantasy of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) -- Now that the war is over, the government and the news media begin to focus on domestic problems with the same intensity they gave the Persian Gulf.
"Without unity of purpose with a clear objective, without George Bush on the television late at night calling the problems to the attention of the American people," the senator believes, "without a full-scale debate in Congress and without the full attention of the media, the changes that are needed will not be made."
Readership studies be damned. Let us contribute more serious journalism to the more serious issues of the moment. Only then will we win back permanently a good fraction of Tim Russert's eight hours of tv watching.