Despite some occasional obloquy, I love America. I used to not be so sure, so I left, stayed away for a while, and when I came back I was certain. We may have our share of problems, but with due consideration to our industrious background and a Constitution that dozens of countries have worked to imitate, we’ve got a lot to work with when it comes to solving those problems.
It’s easy to tell our foreign friends all about where our nation’s gone wrong, and how disenfranchised its people have become. But the next time you’re asked to list your grievances, whether to a friend, colleague, or independent news network, remember this: Americans can fix all of it, if we choose to.
If there’s a law on the books that just isn’t right, or a Wall Street honcho who deserves a swift conviction, it’s a journalist’s job to bring the issue to light. But there’s one more step that many miss, and it could be just as important as the information itself. We need to explain what to do next, or we’ll be faced with a nation overwhelmed with despair in its government. And if we don’t explain, as the experts on this information, what can be done to fix the problem, the people will attempt to take matters into their own hands based on the summary of information they’ve been given. And that can be tragic.
"It won’t work," your readers will tell you. But you know it will, because it has before. Because information is easier to explain when its roots are well understood, journalists often find themselves moonlighting as impromptu historians of whatever topic they cover. Want to cover the National Defense Authorization Act? Then you have to know what it is, when it began, and what it’s meant to do before you can explain why a clause in one particular version is a huge deal. Otherwise, the writer and all of his readers will take the streets shouting "NO NDAA!" while Washington shakes its head and says, "It’s just the name of a budget."
The people must be educated, not inundated. And that’s our job.
Two days ago, President Obama chose a very interesting nominee for the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mary Jo White first gained recognition as the first female US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. As a DA, she was tough as nails on criminals from mafia men to alleged terrorists. Then, in 2002, she took the leap to the better-paying private sector, as many attorneys do. Her biggest clients? Bank of America and JP Morgan. Free from her chains of public servitude, she was able to navigate her too-big-to-fail clients out of the way of any and all investigation into the lending and underwriting practices that led to the 2007 financial meltdown. During her tenure at Debvoise & Plimpton, the firm which represented the banks, White used her federal prowess to ensure that several cases filed by the SEC against her clients were either dropped, or stalled until they expired.
The “fox guarding the henhouse” is nothing new for federal regulatory agencies, but while President Obama’s emerging picks for his new cabinet come under fire from both sides of the aisle, this is the most obviously alarming.
The Senate, of course, can choose to deny her this seat. As it stands, she’s just a nominee, and her Senate Confirmation hearings may bring new light to what we already know. But according to the New York Times, “When it comes to cabinet-level nominees, it’s extremely unusual for the Senate to reject anyone. In its history, the Senate has confirmed over 500 cabinet nominations and only denied nine.” That’s a 98.2 percent approval rate.
As journalists, we can’t stop here. The people know, so now what? This is the point where most popular media outlets are too afraid of looking like Raw Story to end with a call-to-action.
Our readers should call their senators, and so should we. If Mary Jo White’s best defense is her admittedly stunning prosecution record pre-2002, her past ten years make an easy case for her denial as head of the commission she worked for 10 years to mislead. White may be tough on crime, but if financial crime doesn’t count, the SEC is not the right place for her, and our senators need to know that. Public opinion does count for Senators, because ignoring us hurts their job security tremendously. So tell them we care, and do your best to tell your readers what to do if they care, too. Let’s start a trend of action that solves these problems we love to hate.