Thursday, April 7, 2011

Commentary: This trickle-down stinks

Published in the Portland Phoenix

True free-market capitalism has lasted 30 years — barely half as long as its arch-enemy, Soviet communism. It began with Reagan chipping away at the social contract that bound us all together as fellow Americans, as human beings. Now, as funds "saved" by slashing programs for regular people are handed off to megamillionaire plutocrats as tax breaks, we can see clearly that the winner-take-all philosophy has bankrupted America morally, just as surely as it has punished her people financially.

That realization is taking hold among the rich — recent MarketWatch and Vanity Fair columns warn of dire consequences if the wealthiest one percent continue to neglect the suffering of the masses. The rest of us must now drive this point home. The risks if we do not are clear: Republicans in the US House of Representatives have just suggested slashing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — without canceling a dime's worth of tax breaks for the uber-rich.
As tax day, April 15, approaches, it is obvious that we live in an era of taxation without representation. The government takes money from the working class — the only people left who do not get massive tax breaks — and makes decisions that serve only the wealthy few.
Today, with endless war and limitless profiteering, America is in crisis. The Reagan-esque "trickle-down theory" appears ascendant, as politicians on left and right alike dole out government handouts to the wealthy and the corporations they own, while simultaneously eliminating government help for those who are the neediest. The stated promise — the vain hope — is that the rich will reinvest in America, creating jobs and thereby spreading wealth to everyone.
But we know that's not working — for decades now, America has been stripped of her wealth, her workers left to rising unemployment, their homes foreclosed upon, their children's schools gutted.
Self-serving politicians have co-opted the Tea Party movement, turned it into a pawn, a shill for corporate interests. The crowds that attend Tea Party rallies obviously do not realize that they are in a very real way demanding to pay higher taxes and receive fewer services, so that corporations can boost profits. Tea Party orators promote destruction of the social safety net that keeps children from starving, the elderly from freezing, and the poor from dying in the swamp of need. It is time for a return to the real Tea Partiers' values, for us to refuse to pay up without a voice in how our collective riches are allotted.
In Wisconsin, in Ohio, and in Maine, working people are finally standing up and reaffirming the true American ideal, one that generations grew up working to achieve: that we are all members of the same community, who thrive or perish together. We should not tolerate a nation in which corporations and the ultra-rich tread on the poor and middle classes, exploiting them by depriving them of fair pay, humane working conditions, and a decent education.
As the greedy, the heartless, and the power-crazed grow in influence, the American dream is turning into a nightmare. It is already a bad dream for far too many.
The real American dream — the one millions of Americans died striving for, perished protecting, and still work for today — is far from perfect. Still, it is a world in which some corporations are socially responsible, in which some of the wealthy recognize their private fortunes are built on the skills of the many, in which some of the privileged exercise what used to be called noblesse oblige but today goes by the name of public responsibility.
The real America is a nation in which every person has an equal chance to better his or her life, and by so doing also betters the lives of everyone around them. It is a nation in which we help our neighbors in need — knowing that when our day of need comes they will help us.
Today, as I prepare to pay my taxes to a government that does not represent my interests, I'm angry — and not just at the politicians and corporations. I'm angry at those who voted for Bush, for McCain — even, it seems, for Obama. We are complicit in our own ruin at the hands of the robber barons.
Now is a crucial moment for us to change course. The privileged, who have already achieved their fortunes by hook or by crook, seek to bar the door to us, to deny us our dreams forever.
It is time for us to stand up and tell the wealthy what, in fact, is trickling down on us from up there, where they sit, comfortable on their thrones. It is not prosperity, nor even opportunity. It's something very rudely different. And this trickle-down stinks.

Press releases: Build on each other

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Why is that when one Maine news outlet breaks a big story, the others spend more energy trying to copy it, rather than extend it? Take the most recent example, the labor mural dispute.

Governor Paul LePage's remarks and actions about the historical mural at the Maine Department of Labor office in Augusta are indeed newsworthy.

But after more than two weeks of non-stop coverage by Maine reporters, serious — and obvious — questions remain. We still don't know where the murals are, whether any actual business leaders disliked them, whether their removal was legal (a question now before a federal court), why they were removed so abruptly, nor why the governor later said he wished his removal order hadn't been followed so quickly.

These unanswered questions highlight a strange phenomenon of Maine journalism, which I have observed throughout the course of many years as a reporter and editor here.

In a competitive media environment, publications don't worry about getting the scoop a competitor had yesterday — they care about getting the news that hasn't been told yet. If someone gets a big break, other reporters swarm to the topic, seeking to build on that original story. Only rarely does this involve on-the-ground cooperation; mostly, reporters believe in the integrity of the competition, and bring their own resources to bear, driving deeper into the heart of an issue.

Maine has what might be called a passive-cooperative media environment, where media outlets don't acknowledge each other — for good or ill. Perhaps that's to avoid making the others look bad. But in the process, they make themselves weaker, and hurt the public interest.

As a contrary example, look at the New York Times-Washington Post relationship: They regularly scoop each other on topics both papers cover, such as national security. If the Times breaks a story, the Post will develop additional sources and insights to move the story forward, and will often make its basis explicit, saying in an early paragraph, "the New York Times reported X." By expanding on the information someone else has already reported, the Post can get a better, deeper, more insightful story. The Times will respond by building on the Post's reporting. Readers — whether they read one paper, the other, or both — learn lots more, very quickly.

That's not the case in Maine. Here, editors act as if their readers don't look at any other sources of news. So if the Press Herald, the Sun Journal, or the Bangor Daily News gets something good today, you can bet that tomorrow's editions of the other papers will have that story. But don't expect anything else. We see this in the coverage of the mural mess. Despite the massive reporting effort by the State House press corps (and the Press Herald was not the only paper to assign extra reporters to cover different angles), none of Maine's daily papers got anything substantially different from what any other paper had.

The basics still remain unknown. The problem is easily fixed, if only Maine media outlets would acknowledge that somebody has already covered some turf, and decide to move the entire story forward. Instead, busy covering what was already known, none of them bothered to figure out what the next question was, nor determine its answer.

• Another casualty of all this coverage of the mural controversy is news about WHAT ELSE WENT ON IN THE STATE HOUSE LAST WEEK. This is an administration and legislative majority with big plans to make big changes in Maine's governance — and while they likely didn't plan this particular massive distraction, key players are definitely poised to take advantage when the media spotlight turns away. Someone in the State House press corps should have the sense not to follow the pack, and to look in the dark corners others neglect.