January 31, 2022

Corruption as a culture as well as a crime

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2018 -  Corruption is not just a crime, it is a culture. And, by its nature, it can have different effects. I have become convinced, for example, that contemporary corrupt culture is, in no small part, the direct effect of the culture of television, in that corruption used to be a feudal system in which communities were served even as they were being scammed. With the major force in politics becoming one's televised public image, and with advertising replacing community familiarity, you have candidates come to the fore like Trump (and Bill Clinton) whose real record and real past disappears in a media-supported fictional image.

Among the people who could change this are those in the national media. But over my lifetime the cultural  role of this media has  drastically changed. When I started, over half the reporters in the country had only a high school education. As I wrote over a decade ago:

“Even in sophisticated Washington, I kept quiet about my Harvard degree as I learned the trade. Then the trade stopped being a trade as not only a college degree but a masters in journalism became increasingly desired. Further, journalists - with the help of things like the Washington Post's new Style section - began joining the power structure by increasingly writing themselves into it.

“Then came yet another transition: the journalist as a professional was replaced by the journalist as corporate employee, another bureaucratic pawn in organizations that increasingly had less to do with journalism.

“By standard interpretations the trend - at least from uneducated tradesman to skilled professional - was a step forward. But there is a problem with this interpretation. First, with each step the journalist moved further socially and psychologically from the reader or viewer. Reporters increasingly viewed their stories from a class perspective alien to many of those they were writing for, a factor that would prove far more important than the ideological biases about which one hears so many complaints.”

Absent a criminal investigation, it became against the rules to undermine the media image of someone as powerful as a Trump or Clinton. In covering the Clinton Arkansas story I thought I was just doing  what a good reporter was meant to do, but I found myself instead banned from CSPAN and from the DC public radio station not because my facts was wrong, but because I was challenging the accepted view of the establishment media. 

This helps to explain why the coverage of Trump was so unrevealing until a special prosecutor came along. You weren't meant to challenge the false media image of the man even with stuff like the record of his bankruptcies, his untruths, and his dubious real estate dealings. He was a TV star and that was enough.

I don't know how we break out of such delusions, only that they extend far beyond Trump. Corruption as a culture is ours as well as his.

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