Hedrick Smith was a reporter and editor for The New York Times, a producer/correspondent for the PBS show Frontline, and author of several books.
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I've been lucky enough to be a reporter at some of the most pivotal events in American history over the last 50 years - covering Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights of the 1960s; covering the Vietnam War in Saigon and the Mekong Delta; covering the Cold War from the inside, in Moscow and Washington; covering 6 presidential administrations; and now covering the yawning economic and political divide that is the hallmark of today's America.
And now, having traveled to 20 states over the past three years, I have a keen sense of how angry and how frustrated Americans are at our polarized, gridlocked political system.
I've tried to capture the narrative of how we ended up in this morass in my current book, "Who Stole The American Dream," and in my TEDx Talk. Many people feel hopeless. But I'm encouraged that reforms are being won in many states by grassroots civic action on multiple issues. But this positive story is not being well-told by the mainstream media. So I've reported on these stories and put them on a new informational website, ReclaimTheAmericanDream.org. I believe that if more Americans could see the successes in neighboring states, more people would take action in their own communities.
UPDATE: 11/24/15 2:34pm EST Thanks, everyone, for your interesting questions. That's all for now, but I'll be checking in over the next few days. This was my first Reddit experience. I look forward to many more interactions with the Reddit community in the near future.
Are you aware of how Wolf PAC is advancing the agenda to have a convention of the states to propose and Amendment? And have you looked at the Renew Democracy Amendment?
Wolf PAC its part of a much broader movement to roll back the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision that opened the floodgates of corporate money in campaigns. So its a move in the right direction. Already [16 states and 500 cities] (http://reclaimtheamericandream.org/progress-amend/) have gone on record calling for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and give Congress and the states power to curb unlimited MegaMoney in campaigns.
And picking up on the Renew Democracy Amendment, the current push for systemic reforms is a modern version of the Progressive Movement a century ago. So that is a very important exercise of People Power, grass roots civic action. Women got the right to vote. We got the income tax amendment. Direct election of senators. Teddy Roosevelt and Trust Busting. Now, once again, we see widespread anger and disenchantment with our political system. Not just low ratings for the president, the Congress. So the push for a constitutional amendment is really a demand for systemic change. But moving to a constitutional convention is a risky strategy because once the convention meets, it can be taken over by the same MegaMoney special interests now dominating US politics. So probably a smarter strategy is to pursue multiple reforms - forcing dark money into the open, empowering small donors with matching funds or tax credits, putting the heat on Congress for constitutional amendment. And take a look at how states like Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Maine have won reforms, even without a constitutional convention.
What's been the most interesting change in journalism in that time?
The two most disturbing trends in journalism are the rise of the 24/7 news cycle, which has made too many journalists trigger happy and superficial; and the massive change in media economics caused by the internet's disrupting the business model of traditional media. Most newspapers and TV and cable networks have laid off loads of journalists, including some real start reporters. Their enterprise reporting teams and their specialist reporters covering environment, science, medicine, law, digging into business economics are often the first to be fired. I remember a friend of mine at CNN telling me that he and CNN's entire team of science reporters had been cut in one day. What that means is that general assignment reporters are assigned complicated science stories that they are unequipped to cover and so they wind up writing up handouts. whatever the drug company said, whatever the government agency said, etc. This isl secretarial journalism, robot journalism, not enterprise journalism. It's reactive reporting. What really delivers value to readers is pro-active, analytical, investigative reporting. That still goes on. Fortunately we do have ProPublica, The New York Times, PBS Frontline, the revived Washington Post, 60Minutes, Mother Jones and, until it got too aggressive and sloppy on the U-Va story, Rolling Stone. But that number is dwindling and we all suffer because we the people are less well informed and the powers-that-be, whether in government or in th e private sector, are less held accountable. Bad trends.
Why is lobbying legal? Or, better, why isn't it illegal?
Well, lobbying is an activity that goes across the board. Consumers want to lobby for consumer friendly legislation. Green groups want to lobby for environmental legislation. Hospitals lobby, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts lobby. Blacks want to lobby for less police violence. Car drivers want safer cars. In short, lobbying is a way for The People to communicate with government. The problem is that lobbying has become so lopsided for special interests, so stacked in favor of corporate interests, which spend about $3 billion a year in lobbying and walk way with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, tax loopholes and other policies that benefit their bottom line. You cannot stop all lobbying but one important proposal today is to legally ban lobbyists form donating campaign money to officials before whom they will have business after the election. Seattle just passed a referendum barring city contractors from donating to the campaigns of the mayor and city council. Tallahassee did the same thing last year. Or you could do what Connecticut did - undercut the power of lobbyists by providing citizen funding of political campaigns. In the last election, 84% of the candidates for governor, attorney general, and the legislature took public funding. And guess what? The whole political culture of the state has changed. Lobbyists have much less clout with lawmakers than when lobbyists were the main funders of campaigns. Connnecticut is a great success story for modern political reform, Its public funding system been working there for ten years. So other states ought to take a look.
Mr. Smith, many young folks who are eligible to vote, just don't. What do you think is the reason?
The young aren't the only ones who don't vote. Turnout in the 2014 election was the lowest since 1938, just a bit over one-third of eligible voters. Many people, including the young, don't vote because they have given up on American politics. A lot of people don't the connection with their lives, because corporate and other special interests dominate Washington and people tell pollsters, politicians don't listen to people like me. They're right. Good new studies by political scientists have proven this is true. So we've got to restore people's faith and participation in our democracy by actually making it work better for average people. Generally that means achieving action at the state level, where people can see that their voting makes a difference. For example, 28 states have raised their minimum wage above the federal $7.25 an hour. Some did it by popular referendum. When people have an issue like that, they turn out to vote.
what did you have for breakfast?
cold day. what do you do? Oatmeal and the NYTimes.
Out of all the news story's that you have covered which one is your favorite?
Two great stories - covering JohN Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil right movement of the 19609s, and then covering Gorbachev's Perestroika when he began dismantling the whole system of dictatorship in the Soviet Union. We did a four-hour PBS documentary series,"Inside the Gorbachev's USSR." But then, I'd have to add one more, and that is trailing the 9/11 plane hijackers from their initial formation of the cell by Mohammed Atta in Hamburg, Germany through their training in US flight schools and on to checking out Logan Airport in Boston on 9/10/01. Going back and unraveling their plot and then see in the places where US authorities failed to catch them, when it would have been possible.
Hi Rick - your colleague Chris Hedges says common folks ONLY have street protest left bc politics is so far beyond corrupt. Yet you seem so hopeful. Why?
Chris is right in part, but not entirely. Protests in the streets, actual physical engagement by lots of Americans is essential to fix our democracy today. Our history tells us that. Street protests won important victories for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it helped win women the right to vote in the suffragette movement of the early 20th Century. And it probably had an effect in stopping the Keystone pipeline.
But truth is, that’s just the start. You have to follow up street protests, with legal reform, changing the law through popular referendums – gerrymander reform, rolling back Citizens United, public matching funds and tax credits for small donors to political campaigns, laws to smoke out Dark Money in politics. Legal action is necessary to change the laws. Street protests are a way to get the public engaged and put pressure on the system for change.
I am optimistic because, to my own surprise, much more reform is happening in states all around this country but the mainstream media is not doing a good job covering those reforms. And they are happening in unlikely states like Arizona and Florida, as well as california, Connecticut and Ohio. Take gerrymandering, which is fueling gridlock in Washington. Believe it or not, 21 states have either taken action to change the old gerrymandering system, or they have filed lawsuits or mounted citizens movements to change the system. Still a long ways to go. But reform is happening.
I had porridge and a run. I'm a sales director
Well, you said breakfast. Beforehand, I did my calisthenics and walked the dog a mile and a half.
If the MSM is not doing their job - how do you recommend regular, busy folks educate themselves and make a plan of action? Also - you've been part of MSM - and yet do not pull punches - what stops your colleagues from reporting on these key issues?
There are some strong main stream media outlets, which I've mentioned in another answer. So use them. Give them credit. But even these have their blind spots and so concerned citizens have to find alternative sources of news. Frankly, that is one reason why I created the civic action website reclaimtheamericandream.org - to try to fill the gap, to pull together information on political and economic reforms that is actually available on the web, but it's scattered all over them place and hard to find. Often, civic organizations as well as journalists become so specialized that they have tunnel vision. They work in their silos and they often miss context and connections with related topics. And, with the chase to be first with breaking news, blogger,s reporters, talk show hosts and reporters barrage their audiences with details but fail to make sense out of the news. They throw dots at their audience rather than connecting the dots. and so the biggest challenge is to step back, take a breath, think - actually think - about what the news means. Try to make sense of it for the longer term rather than rushing to judgment. Think back for a moment about how many journalists/analysts etc you heard on the air telling you, for example, that Trump was a will of the wisp and would quickly disappear) and were proven wrong or premature win their judgments. A more important question, for example, is why is Trump holding his support? What emotions, needs, insecurities, of which constituencies has he tapped into. Forget whether he is up or down two or three points, which is what most of the radio chatter is about, and dig into the WHY of the story and the HOW. What is Trump's political durability telling us about a big chunk of Americans? That's hard work. it takes time. And too many journalists - and readers - are in too much of a hurry these days.
Everything in mass media sounds like corporate PR now - how corrupt is the mass media today? What do you think is a good source of unbiased news?
The mass media sounds like PR partly because too often news outlets rate simply parroting what they've been told because they're in too much of a hurry to be first rather than being informative. In the 24/7 news cycle, they are competing for "eyeballs" or "ears" - how many people are listening or watching and how fast they can capture an audience. After all, advertisers want large audiences. And so the emphases is on speed, scandal, titillation. The viewers, the audience has to take some responsibility for superficial journalism because this is what most people watch and chase after. You can see more of my comments about how we got into this mess in my other answer.
Any thoughts on ESPN backing out of the Frontline documentary on NFL concussions?
Well, two things. Frontline has a very solid reputation for strong investigative reporting and, as always, it was tackling a highly controversial issue for the NFL. So you knew the NFL would be opposed to the report. Second, for a $40 billion broadcast outlet like ESPN, the NFL is a major source and client. They broadcast some NFL games, do lots of commentaries, rely on NFL Video clips. So ESPN had a built-in conflict of interest. The NYTimes reported earlier this year that ESPN had backed out under pressure form the NFL, denied by ESPN, but not very convincing denial. their claim was they lacked editorial control. To me, between the lines that means they were afraid that the frontline report was going to be very tough- tougher than the NFL wanted and so ESPN felt they had to bail out.
Street protests are opportunities for state security to collect intelligence, leading onward to covert forms of harassment. Kettling and arbitrary arrests are used explicitly to gather intelligence on activists.
The infiltration and operational degradation of activist organizations will be the determining factor in future political actions, which humble street protesters will not win.
Today more than ever, state security views street and Internet-driven protest as a form of quasi-terror. And once they've gained even more power after the current spate of terror attacks, things will only get worse.
Having lived and worked in a dictatorship, the USSR, and covered other authoritarian countries, I am not pessimistic about the US. We as a people cannot convince ourselves that we are powerless. It is true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But it is also true, as the community organizer Ernie Cortes said, "powerlessness also corrupts"- it corrupts our democracy at the core. It robs us of our voice. Democracy is not a spectator sport. People have to participate.