Friday, June 24, 2005

Where's the Scrutiny?

Several weeks out from the day of the Tennessee Waltz arrests, now that all the defendants have been arraigned and things have settled down into the long, long wait before trials begin, something occurs to me.

Some unknown company, being represented by a small-time Memphis hustler with rising political connections but a tainted past, approaches members of the House and Senate to get some legislative action. Some accept bribes to move, alter and later withdraw legislation in Nashville on behalf of this company. Other legislators don't accept bribes but do accept "campaign contributions," some of which are later returned. Other legislators don't do anything except, after refusing to accept bribes, sign on to co-sponsor the legislation, implying that such corruption is common-place enough not to ruffle feathers.

So. Where is the investigation by the state's newspapers and television news stations of other legislation? We know the roots of the Tennessee Waltz go back several years to complaints from guys like Frank Buck about pervasive suspected corruption. There are no doubt more legislators or clean lobbyists with stories to tell. Where are those stories? If someone as small and trifling as E-Cycle can successfuly bribe a legislator, doesn't it follow that important and powerful interests -- potential corruptors with strong community connections to power, money and influence in the legislators' lives -- could more easily and more profoundly accomplish the same?

Instead, we seem stuck with digging into Tim Willis, the man who fronted for the FBI. (Wouldn't that make a great film title? "I Fronted For the FBI" Sam Jackson as Tim Willis in an explosive performance about a man trapped between ambition and the law.) We get stories galore about the tawdry John Ford, and several completely expected and completetly non-informative stories about the role of race in John Ford's indictment and trial.

But nothing, nothing, about the legislators themselves, their peers and underlings and associates, possible other instances of bribery or corruption, or the allegations of corrupt reach into Memphis and Shelby County politics implied by the Tennessee Waltz indictments. I'd like to think it's because these things take time, but I suspect it's some unconscious effort to "preserve public trust in the integrity of government" by isolating the corruption to the few and leaving the many and the structures they've corrupted free from taint as much as possible. A misguided sense of public duty, if you will, framed by fear of lawyers and polticians, and the fear of loss of access.

There used to be a time when newspapers (and now television news operations) didn't see themselves as aloof from the public they courted. They would lead crusades and call corrupt politicians criminals. Now, they just report. Someone else acts, they cover it. That is so sad.

It also serves the corrupt. When the people get outraged, where's the leadership's forum to develop and exhort? Not in the news, nor in talk radio, nor on television. Mike Fleming, on WREC/AM600 takes calls all week long from frustrated Memphians aching for change, change he agrees with no less, but there's a bright and shining line of meaningful action he will not cross. He won't organise; he won't provide forums for discussion of change; he won't work to provide connections for disjoint groups working for the same aim. He simply keeps every voice discrete and takes calls.

That's not to pick only on Fleming. The Commercial Appeal takes on crusades like "Memphis Health" or "Amber's Army" (Remember that? The website sure is an echoing, empty warehouse these days. Not updated in almost two years now.) that it feels will attract readers and subscribers. But working to find, root out and expose corruption in City and County Hall? City Council and County Commission? City and County Schools? The vast bureaucracies that underlie them, virtual stewpots of potential corruption? Not so much.

Why? In the case of the CA, they have found themselves (whether by choice or inevitability) aligned with those they should be most suspicious of. For folks who are supposed to be observers of the human condition they sure are woefully short of historical knowledge and human understanding. Government and positions of power have always been magnets for the corrupt and wicked. Always. People have always been corruptible. Always. The price of a free and democratic society has always been eternal vigilance and ruthless response.

But if the watchdogs have turned their backs on the people they guard to instead protect the creatures who would prey on them, where do we go? Like the saying goes Qui custodiet custodiens? Who watches the watchmen? If the guards serve a presumptive king and not the free people?

Newspapers are already on their way out. Locked into the false religion of neutrality and objectivity that has now isolated them from the public, they drift into irrelevance. Wave good bye!

Television news, driven by the need for advertisers which drives a need for only a specific kind of viewer, and dominated by consulting firms which are in the business only for themselves, find they are awash in a sea of sensationalism. Sure, there are some islands of real news, but they are spots on a map painted with the constant barrage of fear, tittilation and alienation. There's more on this, but you'll have to come back at 6 and 10PM to learn about it. Then I'll recap it in the morning post.

There is a window of opportunity on the Internet. It's not here yet, especially in Memphis where a majority of folks still don't use the Internet much or even have access. And not long after the change agents are established to reach people and effect real change, the folks who dominate the media today -- and the money people behind them -- will move in there, too. Again, create any position of power and influence and it will attract those who want power and influence, who will distort it to increase and retain that power. Human historical inevitability.

But that window will arrive and it will be open for a while. We must prepare and be ready. The ground is dry, the wind is blowing, the matches are in hand. Thomas Jefferson was so very right when he said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

The firestorm is coming.

The newspapers and television news operations can either practice some controlled burns now, or watch themselves be immolated. The choice is theirs.

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