Taking a look at the big media picture, and especially among our brethren, on the Right such as Fox and Breitbart, it might seem that the biggest story of the year is the Tea Party movement. It's supposed to be indicative of a deep-seated anger among voters, a sign that people are all but ready to stage a Second American Revolution to take their country back.
As such, the Tea Party is being met with some confusion from those in the political center and outright hatred from bastions of the Left. So, as a reporter with 14 years of experience at both major dailies such as the
and big weeklies in Chicago and Los Angeles, I'm here to declare that the real story of change in America in 2010 isn't coming from Barack and the Democrats on the left, nor from the tea party movement on the Right.
It's coming from a tiny Los Angeles suburb called Bell
You might have heard of the Bell scandals. They are tales of public officials who ran arrogantly roughshod over every single principle of good and decent government, whose porcine finance leader as a literal pig feeding at the public trough to the tune of around $1.5 million per year counting salary and perks. His salary alone, for handling the monies of a tiny working-class enclave, was nearly double that of the U.S. President.
And as the seemingly lowly residents of Bell were informed of what was happening in their town, they set an exciting example of democracy in action that everyone – Left or Right, from MSNBC or Fox – should agree is a wonderful sign that this country aint' down for the count yet. The people of Bell – mostly minorities and immigrants, who were preyed upon because they were considered easily duped due to their lack of access to education – staged protests and demanded that the city council officials who were robbing them blind show their faces at a town hall meeting. Some of those officials did show, some didn't; but now all of them are indicted on fraud charges and have been subjected to hefty bail amounts.
What caused the uproar was another sign that this country still has hope that goes beyond a smiling candidate's picture on a red and blue poster. It was sterling reporting by the Los Angeles Times
, a newspaper that has been as battered and beleaguered as any in this nation, and was seemingly crippled by insanely bad ownership by a tycoon named Sam Zell who doesn't know a damn thing about journalism and who caused or maintained massive layoffs that seemed to endanger the paper's mission to be a watchdog for democracy.
Thankfully, the Times
' remaining writers and tenacious editors still pulled through with an investigation into California's budget crises and studied the revenues and expenditures of towns and cities throughout the state. It was through this investigation that they uncovered the corruption rife in Bell, and emboldened by success that is deserving of a Pulitzer Prize, they now have set other local governments like Vernon in their sights.
As a reporter for weeklies for most of my career, I have made a conscious decision to avoid the world of daily newspapers. At both the Tribune
and my prior daily, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
(especially the Democrat-Gazette
), I encountered incidents in which major stories were covered up or ignored by the capricious whims of management who were afraid to get too much dirt on their hands. One story at the Democrat-Gazette
, when I was just a college intern, involved the highly mysterious murder
of the head of security for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign.
Presenting my editor during my 1993 Christmas break – just a month before Clinton's inauguration - with some tips and evidence that had fallen my way while conducting research for another story, my editor angrily questioned where I got the materials and ordered me to file them away again in the newspaper's basement (this was before the widespread use of the Internet, remember). I did that, but only after secretly copying the file and handing copies off to a Washington Post
reporter and two reporters from a British tabloid. The Brits picked up the case, and I learned about nine months later while watching Rush Limbaugh's then-TV show that it had exploded into headlines in London. But sadly, not here in the States.
The second time I saw the betrayal of journalistic ethics at the Democrat-Gazette
happened that prior winter, when Clinton was still running for president, and the American Spectator
faxed our paper the first “leaked” copy of the story that spilled the beans on the governor's use of his state troopers as a highly personal security force that helped him procure random women to sleep with and keep Hillary and her wrath away from him. I picked up the fax, read over the article, realized it was a bombshell, presented it to my editor since the Spectator
was offering us the chance to break the story in the daily-paper world, and was again ordered to bury it. About a week later, a CNN broadcast in the Democrat-Gazette
newsroom was met with cheers, as CNN announced that the L.A. Times
had taken the bait and blown the story wide open (no pun intended).
The message was clear to me: dailies lack guts for truly dangerous stories, while weeklies have proven to have more integrity over the years, as I've found that if you have a great story, they'll let you tell it. My editor is a proud liberal, but for the past eight years, as I shifted into becoming a rather firm libertarian (though no Tea Partier, I'm more of the Ron Paul camp), he has always had the integrity to allow me or anyone else who came to him with a legitimate, researched story, the opportunity to break it, no matter what political angle it might embrace.
There need to be more editors like mine. There also need to be more papers like the Los Angeles Times
, where the reporters who still work there clearly show their pride and professionalism in their job by fearlessly taking on the corrupt leaders around us. They are lighting the torches that the rest of us need to carry forward, by doing our part to be informed and educated on the issues, rather than merely sitting on the sidelines, being scoffed at as worthless or tiny or misunderstood.
There are sadly countless other Bells across this country, places where greed and duplicity rob the rest of us blind. But I, for one, am hopeful and thankful that some people are starting to open their eyes and see the light of day around them.