I was looking in the mirror one day last week when I realized that when it comes to the public dialogue, I’m part of the problem. Chances are that you are too.
I had been watching one of the endless congressional hearings going on these days. It might have been about Goldman Sachs or maybe Fannie Mae or maybe even the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Then came on the analysis. Who was at fault? Who is to blame? What did he know and when did he know it?
This is the part we’ve become addicted to.
Take the oil spill. The damn thing hasn’t even been plugged yet and already we’re buzzing around in the discussion over whose fault it was. The federal government is spending more time looking for a culprit than it is in figuring out how to solve the problem. It’s as if an airplane goes down and instead of looking for survivors, the rescue crew starts investigating what went wrong and who is to blame.
Playing the blame game is just another way of expressing our collective doubts that we’re powerless in life to get much of anything done. If our business fails, we blame corporate America or we blame intrusive government regulation. If we make bad decisions and owe more money than we make, we wait for a bailout. If we don’t get it we angrily denounce those that did.
We’re all at fault here. Let’s start with me. For 35 years, I wrote for a newspaper, analyzing and documenting life in Santa Cruz County. Sure, I wrote some articles about someone’s success or another person’s achievement, but the memorable stories were the ones where something went wrong and I set out to find out what it was.
Maybe that’s where the well-practiced cynicism of journalists begins. It’s true—we look for the negative. Everyone says they want good positive stories in the newspaper, but in actuality the most-read stories involve scandal or avarice.
(Good Times is an exception, by the way. It’s nice to be associated with a publication whose goal is to celebrate the best of life in Santa Cruz.)
The height of success for most journalists is the investigative story. It’s the one where someone messed up—or even better, how an entire company, or department or organization did something wrong.
Look at the success of 60 Minutes. For every nice feature about, say, Johnny Carson or Mick Jagger, there are dozens that feature a hidden camera, a crook, an innocent bystander and lots of outrage. The effectiveness of the negative hasn’t been lost on political candidates. Look at their television commercials. It’s not enough for GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman to say she disagrees with her opponent, Steve Poizner. Instead, she impugns his honesty and mocks his integrity. And Poizner does the same thing right back.
And the lesson for us all is that they’re both horrible—and probably anyone else who’s going to run for governor. “They’re all crooks,” we say.
Is it any wonder that we have no trust left in anyone? As I watched the Goldman Sachs hearings I watched in vain for someone to believe in. The Goldman guys were sleazy; the congressional questioners (many of whom received campaign dollars from Wall Street) were opportunistic. A pox on all their houses, I thought.
That’s when I looked in the mirror and realized that I really don’t believe in anyone. I have become, like apparently a lot of Americans, one of those people that don’t trust any institutions anymore. The next step is to watch The Daily Show and watch Jon Stewart make fun of everyone, and revel in the snarkyness of it all.
That’s a hell of a fix. Because in reality, there are good and decent people who are part of our institutions. Good people work at Goldman. Good people serve in congress. Someone, somewhere, is out there trying to figure out a way to stop the leak in the Gulf. Whoever it is, he or she isn’t losing time in figuring out whom to blame. Let’s get the leak plugged.
Or, look right here in Santa Cruz. Some have blamed the City Council over recent acts of violence. I’m not sure why. The council has, in fact, taken several steps to solve the problem. They’ve beefed up the police force, offered rewards and organized neighborhood groups to address the problems. Some critics say the City Council has done nothing, when, in fact, it has done a lot.
Maybe it’s time to lose the cynicism. Distrust isn’t helping.
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