Here’s a piece contributed to our site by the author Djelloul Marbrook. Check out his site to see more of his writing and to learn more about him.
The way to take government back from corrupters is at hand. Don’t wait for the press to do it for you. It’s a do-it-yourself job. It’s the perfect job for retirees, because their years and diversity of experience are invaluable tools.
But first, learn a little about the muckraker I.F. Stone. You don’t have to read his biography, although it’s worth it. Just consider his ideas:
—Government doesn’t belong to politicians, it belongs to you.
—Information about the government, federal, state and local, doesn’t belong to the press, it belongs to you.
—Government leaves a trail. Follow it.
—You don’t need to be a trained journalist to ferret out what government is up to. But you do need to read between the lines and wed your intuition to your common sense.
—Government would like you to believe that it’s paper trail is so hard to follow that only lawyers can do it, and you have to pay them to spit. Don’t believe this. You can follow the paper trail, and very often it can send people to jail.
The news is not where you think it is. It’s not where the camera is. It’s not where politicians are shooting their mouths off. It’s not even at official meetings. It’s in documents. And the press won’t be caught dead reading them because it’s time-consuming and it may lead up blind alleys.
So where does that leave us? Up the creek. Because those documents are where the skullduggery is. Anyone stealing your money or your rights has very likely left his paw prints in those documents. Corrupt governments keep records of themselves, just as the Nazis so famously did.
Why is the government now taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Because forensic accountants from Morgan Stanley spent hours, days and weeks going over their books. Never mind the press conferences, the Sunday talk shows, the pundits. They’re just finding news ways to repeat themselves. The truth is in documents., which almost no one reads, especially not lawmakers.
There is hardly a town hall, city hall or state capital building free of scandal and corruption, but the press doesn’t want to pay reporters to spend hours and days and weeks and months reading reams of papers, microfiche and computerized documents. So many of the most important stories go untold.
The dirty little secret about most corruption scandals like the Whitewater foofaraw of the Clinton years and the fact that the Pentagon today can’t say how much it has spent in Iraq is that there are similar scandals all over the nation, in every county, town and city, and the cumulative effect is to send corrupt politicians to Washington and weaken the fiber of the republic.
This is what I.F. Stone knew. And he and his disciples spent the time reading the records. But the I.F. Stone Weekly is a memory now, although journalism students, all of us really, should study it.
When the federal government intends to impose a new rule or change an old rule, when it posts invitations to bid for contracts, it must by law say so in The Federal Register, the most important fine print in the land. It announces hearings, it sets times for comments, and it closes the comment period in the Register. And it counts on you not to comb through it.
Oh, sure, if you ask federal officials, they’ll tell you the Register exists for public scrutiny. But the truth is they don’t want you or the press to pay attention, and they’re usually unhappy when you do. They usually don’t have to worry about the press, because the press is increasingly loathe to spend its money where it can’t gin up soap opera.
Each state has its own register which functions very much like the Federal Register. These are public documents. You can’t be barred from them. They are intently studied by people who do business with government, by people who cheat government, by people who want something specific from government, and by lawyers.
When local government buys things or services, it usually advertises specifications in local or regional newspapers. It also advertises rules and changes, intent to exercise eminent domain, etc. In other words, it advertises its business. This is a big source of revenue for newspapers,
and local government often tries to punish newspapers for being too inquisitive by rerouting advertising to competing newspapers.
But most readers read commercial advertising skip over government advertising, which appears in small print in the classified section. Too bad. Because the first clues that something is fishy are probably going to appear in those advertisements and announcements. They can get pretty tricky, and it can be a lot of fun to analyze them. For example, a city may put out specifications for a new fire truck. It seems on the up and up, because the city is looking for competitive bids. But on closer analysis you might see that the specifications are written so that only one manusfacturer can meet them. In other words, the dice have been loaded and the fix is in. Then the question arises, who was paid under the table to load the dice? Isn’t that as interesting as bridge?
This is just the beginning of what a determined citizen can do to keep his local government honest. Those records at town hall and city hall and the county building and the state capital, they all belong to you, the citizens. Some officials will try to make it hard for you to get to them, imposing rules of access; other officials will lean over backwards to accommodate you. Whenever someone makes it hard for you to get to records, you’re smelling a rat. Your common sense and intuition will kick in, you’ll get your back up and persevere. Don’t be afraid to be a gadfly. A republic depends on its gadflies.
I’d like to see an army of retired people descend on government across the land and study the records of every single government action. I’d like to see clubs and groups of people come together and strategize about keeping government clean. All with the knowledge, however saddening, that the press isn’t going to do it.
Maybe we better explain a bit more why the press isn’t going to do it. First, it’s expensive. Second, many young reporters don’t have the experience to to do it. Third, there is a pervasive belief in journalism that the subject of government isn’t as interesting as sex, scandal, catastrophe, demolition politics, sports, weather, rich ditzes, you name it. And that’s a catastrophe, because a republic can’t operate without intense scrutiny. Without it, you end up with authoritarian government.
There is another reason the press can’t be depended on to open the doors and windows and air government out. The press is very often the recipient of largesse in the form of advertising from the corrupters. For example, a developer who has bought off public officials to get the kind of zoning he wants or the exceptions he needs or the project he is proposing is likely to be a major advertiser. The lenders, realtors, appraisers and everyone else involved in the current sub prime mortgage debacle all advertised in the press. So where was the press’s incentive to keep them honest? The press was riding the gravy train, just like the appraisers, the realtors and the bankers.
I believe that legions of retirees, and anyone else with the dedication, can clean government up at every level if they simply follow I.F. Stone’s example: read what government says about itself.
Don’t depend on attorneys general and other public lawyers to go after the bad guys, first, because it’s too late by the time they get into the act, and second, because they’ll turn it into cryptology. And, of course, all too often the public lawyers are part of the problem.
Reading up on what government is really doing, compared, say, to what the bloviators say it’s doing, might just prove more interesting than bridge or golf. And it will certainly be a public service.
But who’s going to print what we find? you say. You are, of course. If you’re reading this, then you can do it—on the Internet, on blogs, by e-mail.
And if you get stumped, if you can’t understand something, you can put out a call for help. For example, suppose you’re a retired engineer and you see something you don’t fathom, you can put out an e-mail alert to see if there are any forensic accountants around.
Just think of the human resources we have at hand in our elderly population. They could change the face of American government with their combined knowledge and experience. Task groups could be formed to take on specific projects. This would be grassroots democracy at an unprecedented level, and the upshot would be that none of us would feel quite as helpless as we do now.