The president has obvious prestige and power. Lyndon Johnson could intimidate someone solely with his stare. Champion athletes' hands sweat when they greet the president at the White House. Women from Marilyn to Monica have swooned over his position.
On this day recognizing the faces of our nation, journalists must be reminded of their own power. While good writers have been able to limn beautiful poetry and prose to tell compelling human interest stories, few reporters can tackle government when it abuses power. I left journalism for social services after graduating journalism school convinced of the profession's ineffectiveness. I have changed my mind. It is not only not journalists' fault for lack of results when a good portion of society simply does not care; their efforts are precious and brave.
Still, journalism could use more people as confident as the presidents, as willing to lead -- and commanding to read. In Washington, nonsensical haggling and the influence of lobbyists have left the health care bill a depressing mess. Here in Chicago, politicians continue corruption despite the best efforts of the Tribune's editorial board. It would be a waste of time to list all of government's questionable activities over time and today. This is bad, old news.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the relationship between the press and government has always been unequal. Most journalists take dictation from government more than they grill it. For as much power lies in a reporter's pen, the sword seems sharper. For every victory, such as the publication of the Pentagon papers or last decade's story on NSA wiretapping, thousands more abuses go unreported. (Even the wiretapping story tepidly waited a year for government approval.)
Luckily not all things stay the same. I now believe the election of Barack Obama was an instance in which much of the press was wrong and politics correctly led the papers. I myself was duped by many publications. Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps this country's most courageous moral and civil leader, disdained the public's naivety in accepting everything the authorities say. Another great moral leader, the Dalai Lama, outright criticized 'the decider,' President Bush, saying that Bush misunderstands reality. Though the spiritual leader qualified this remark by saying he loves Bush, his comment is illuminating. It is not good for our country to have confused authoritative types as leaders.
What we need is a slowly reasoned, intuitive approach to this problem. We need assertive, focused leaders who treat citizens as equals. We need citizens who view the ideal leader not as a heroic, detached philosopher-king, but as an honest, hardworking everyman/woman. A perfect democracy is unattainable, but a good republic would do better than one made up of bananas.
With plenty of bananas to peel in Washington, state houses and countless cities, journalists can step in as representatives of the people. Journalists have the power in their very jobs to demand more honesty from government and inform others of serious matters. They can help change this situation. The more a sword is used, the duller it becomes. There is great opportunity for people who love truth to lead us instead of the august statesmen who lead us on.
If this message is troubling to you, it is understandable. You should expect your government and media to tell you the truth and I cannot blame you. But if you are like me and cannot help but pay attention to our dysfunctional system of government, it is better to kindly and courageously, if imperfectly, act. So many social and personal living problems can be solved when we address this issue of unequal power.
The early Americans never elected Patrick Henry their president. But this patriot declared, "For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst and to deal with it." Journalists can deliver at least this much.