Originally published in the Albany Student Press, 10/10/05
Sometimes, my readings for class make me think on a deeper level.
Okay, so it’s more a case that I cannot sit still for more than 25 seconds at a time, and have the attention span of a two-year-old. So, while reading a case study on the Love Canal for one of my classes, I leapt out of the chair and ran to my bookshelf to see if an old textbook referenced it.
I won’t lie. I was also partly driven by my inner nerd. But mild ADD sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?
At any rate, the case study was reminding me of a class I took in undergrad. The class was about muckraking. And the text, appropriately, is Muckraking: The Journalism that Changed America.
While, surprisingly, there was nothing about the Niagara Gazette reporters and how they blew the lid off of one of the largest environmental scandals (and part of the inspiration for the national Superfund), it did remind me of the glory days of journalism. Of the days when reporters weren’t too afraid to roll up their sleeves and spend long hours trying to break a story. Also, mind you, the days when the editors and publishers weren’t afraid to print these stories.
It’s rare that you’ll see a story about the automotive industry producing an unsafe vehicle and hiding it from the public, as General Motors did with the Corvair in the 1960’s, as revealed by Ralph Nader in Unsafe at Any Speed, or how Ford did with the Pinto, as revealed by Mother Jones. You don’t see any Nellie Blys going undercover into mental asylums. You certainly don’t see any more Deep Throats or Bob Woodwards.
And, when a reporter does strike out and try to break a story like that, he or she gets thrown in jail, like Valerie Plame. Or no one seems to care about it, like the deadly Bird Flu (H5N1) that is hitting Asia, and could hit the U.S.
Or, sometimes, people may read the stories, and then tell the newspaper that they “don’t want to read about that horrible stuff.” The Glens Falls Post Star did an expose on a slumlord and his slums, a scourge on the community for years, but one that was ignored. After the story was published, people wrote in letters saying, “I don’t want to read words like ‘feces’ on the front page of the newspaper!”
Instead of being offended by the acts, they are offended by the stories themselves. So much for not killing the messenger.
People seem content to turn a blind eye on society, despite the best efforts of the Fourth Estate to force them to see. Media conglomerates certainly don’t do much to help the problem, encouraging reporters to turn their backs on these stories, and steer them toward sex scandals and political infighting.
It is discouraging. However, in this case, it’s hard to change the system from the inside. No, this one needs to be done by the public. Only when the public starts demanding to be in the know will we see a true resurgence of muckraking journalism.
In the meantime, check out Judith and William Serrin’s book. It will remind you of just how important the media’s function really is. And next time you read a story that makes you cringe, don’t curse the reporter for writing about feces, thank him for bringing it to your attention. Then curse the people responsible. The muckrakers of the past were not effective without a receptive audience, and neither can the ones of the future be.