Why journalism is failing us

Last week one of the most incredible gatherings in the history of Detroit happened — three Nobel Peace Prize winners came to Wayne State University for a public conversation on the world's most important issue.

You could have been there, by the way; there was plenty of space left in the auditorium where they spoke. You could also have met the laureates — Iran's Shirin Ebadi, Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu and our own Jody Williams, all of whom were warm and accessible.

However, you probably had no idea they were coming. Nor would you been able to find out what they talked about from our ghastly media.

There was barely a word about their appearance; later, I couldn't find a syllable about them in our "newspapers."

The next morning there was, however, on the front page, this drivel from Paul Anger, the editor of the newly Gannettized Detroit Free Press:

Today's paper is a fast read based on how so many of us spend Saturdays — rushing to play or work, maybe standing up and eating peanut butter out of a jar for breakfast ... Confession: The standup peanut butter breakfast has happened in my house.

For Free Press readers who found that not enough of a fast read, or who, perhaps, have trouble reading at all, there was a helpful photo, also on the front page, of an open jar of peanut butter with some on a knife.

No wonder there was no space to cover three Nobel Prize winners (actually four; another sent a videotape). U.S. Sen. Carl Levin also was there, as was Michigan Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan.

None of them discussed eating standing up. What they did talk about was governments and world peace.

During the evening, it hit me, in a way it never has before, that I am a citizen of a country guilty of massive crimes against humanity.

Yes, I have known that intellectually all my adult life; how many nations, after all, have dropped nuclear weapons on women and children without warning? But the gentle and eloquent testimony of these three incredibly classy women filled me with a sense that our atrocities aren't aberrations. They are what we are.

The peace prize winners weren't, by the way, much into America-bashing — except perhaps for Jody Williams, who has every right to do so.

She's lived in Vermont most of her life, when she wasn't facing down death squads in El Salvador. Yet Shirin Ebadi and Rigoberta Menchu, even through translators, made us see how the world sees us.

And what we saw was a world dominated by an incredibly rich country that behaves a lot like a 2-year-old. Incredibly rich and selfish, and full of people who believe they are morally superior, but who mostly just don't care. We just want what we want, when we want it.

Rigoberta Menchu said that sometimes, after some particular new atrocity, she and other Central Americans would shrug.

"The North Americans are like that," she said with a little chuckle that said nothing — and everything. She is a Guatemalan Indian peasant woman, with a warmly expressive smile, though how she can smile at all is beyond me. Her mother was arrested, tortured, raped and killed.

Her brother was tortured and killed by the army, and her father was tortured and murdered too. She went into hiding and then exile. Their crimes were fighting to get human rights for the peasants.

"They used to tell us, 'Be careful, or they'll say you are a Communist,'" she said, shaking her finger. Now, they call you a terrorist, "and of course no government can ever be guilty of terrorism," she said.

But my government is, I thought with a sense of dull horror; my government, which thinks it has the right to cook up a phony pretext and invade and occupy other countries.

If that isn't terrorism, what is?

Everything about Shirin Ebadi's manner says that she was born to be a judge. And she was one — actually, the first woman judge in Iranian history. But then the ayatollah came to power and the medieval maniacs demoted her to a clerk in her own courtroom.

Many professional and educated women fled then. But she stayed, at great personal risk to herself. Eventually, when conditions loosened a bit, she was granted a lawyer's license and went to work practicing law, often representing the victims of oppression.

Through it all, she has fought for human rights. Now she and the other laureates are increasingly worried that the Bush administration will turn its tender mercies toward her country, bombing it next.

They know that regimes the world over resort to military adventures to shore their sagging popularity. "We need to let them know that they are not doing it in our name," said Jody Williams, one of only three American women ever to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

I knew that Williams had done more than any other human being — yes, including Princess Diana — to ban landmines. I knew that more than 120 countries had signed the treaty to ban them, and that it had been ratified more quickly than any other treaty in history.

I also knew that our own government, believing in its moral superiority as firmly as did Adolf Hitler, had refused — under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — to sign the treaty.

What I didn't know was that Jody Williams is a spellbinding speaker, intensely sarcastic and intensely funny, a flinty Vermonter with a heart. She swears and gets exasperated and reminded me of a brilliant, young and more attractive Phyllis Diller. Had she spoken for two hours without stopping I would not have minded one bit.

I wasn't a bit surprised that she wasn't covered by the local slugs who pretend to be journalists, but who are only the towel boys for the corporate interests who own them. "The vast majority of the media in the United States are controlled by only five corporations — did you know that?" she said. "And they want you to think that Brad Pitt and J. Lo are the most important people in the world.

"They want you to think a lot about where Angelina Jolie's baby is born, and not to think about what is happening to you, your country and the planet," she said.

What we need to do is to fight, and keep fighting.

She has done exactly that. Williams was barely in her 30s when she went to El Salvador and faced down death squads. Somewhere in the world, there are little children whose legs haven't been blown off, thanks to her.

"What really irritates me is when people come up to me and say, 'There are so many problems I don't know what to do.'

"Well, pick something! Pick the issue you care about the most. Go online, find a group and volunteer, even if it is only one hour a month. Do you realize what even that could accomplish?"

What I realized is that some of us may survive for a few decades, and that some day young people may ask what we did during the years when our leaders were doing so much to ruin our nation and the world.

And when that day comes, do you really want to say, "Well, I watched Paris Hilton, and then I got laid off and they took away my big-screen TV?"

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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