The Essential U.S. Journalism Books of 2018
Two very different reporters dig deep beneath the mainstream media chatter to find the authentic, arrhythmic heart of America. Charlie LeDuff (Sh*t Show!: The Country’s Collapsing… and the Ratings are Great) and Chris Hedges ( America: The Farewell Tour), both former New York Times writers, are resourceful investigators who go their own ways to find stories. Beyond that instinct for truth, and independence from the media pack, they have radically different methods. Read together, their books complement and corroborate each other.
LeDuff gathers anecdotal evidence from “the fringes” of the country, including minorities and the poor, who rarely have a voice or make an appearance in media until some tragedy befalls them. His made-for-TV antics are gutsy and amusing (a la Michael Moore) but his points are deadly serious.
Hedges’ relentless jeremiad reveals the pathologies of America’s failed institutions, the impotence of our corporate political parties, the rise of the Christian fascism and infotainment that brought Trump to power and the concomitant cruelties of word and deed that spread with toxic speed via our electronic networks, degrading our discourse and our sensibilities. Hedges provides the systemic overview and context for LeDuff’s many examples of U.S. social and economic craziness.
After twelve years at the Times, Charlie LeDuff quit the paper and returned to his hometown of Detroit, convinced the elite media were missing the real story of how most Americans – non-celebrities and non-oligarchs – were coping with their increasingly dire economic circumstances.
LeDuff wrote about the urban catastrophe of Detroit for the Detroit Free Press for two years, then took a job at WJBK TV, Detroit’s local Fox affiliate. In 2013 he managed to convince Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes to let him take a three-person film crew around the country to get stories of the “real America,” produced as two- to ten-minute segments available for broadcast by Fox affiliated stations across the country. This series, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, called “The Americans,” is available to view on youtube.
LeDuff describes his meeting with the wary Ailes in Sh*t Show!
I was proposing something showcasing everyday people who were trying to get by as the country and their way of life disintegrated around them.
“I don’t want you going off and doing stories on Rupert Murdoch’s charities,” he said, gravely.
What the wizard was telling me was that he didn’t want stories that would cost him money or advertisers or instigate phone calls from the country club or from the Boss himself. These were the same concerns of liberal media executives. In the end, news isn’t really about keeping the public informed or holding the powerful to account. It’s about cash money. The First Amendment is a fine thing, but the Founding Fathers didn’t think to leave the media a revenue stream.
LeDuff’s self-appointed mission was to give voices to usually voiceless people. Careening around the country with his homemade “Official Media ID,” speaking with everyday folk in his own politically incorrect argot, he picked fruit with migrant workers in southern California and interviewed them in Spanish about their circumstances and aspirations. He checked out the grim conditions in the oil fields of North Dakota and the deadly effects of water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, after the state took over that bankrupt city in 2011 and switched its water supply from the Detroit River to the cheaper, ultra-polluted, Flint River.
You could watch the water come from the tap. It didn’t just look like shit; it probably had actual shit in it.”
LeDuff checked out Cliven Bundy’s claim in Nevada that he had the right to graze his cattle on public lands at no charge, as a sovereign citizen of the state. Bundy gathered a “citizens’ militia” to defend his rights against federal officials, claiming “I don’t even recognize the United States government as existing.”
Occasionally a performer as well as a witness, LeDuff donned an American flag bathing suit and rode an inflatable banana kayak across the Rio Grande, to observe coyotes and their clients crossing illegally on jet skis. He chronicled the deadly chaos in Detroit’s urban schools, speaking to students and staff as millions of tax dollars were diverted to subsidize a hockey stadium owned by billionaires.
When police killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, LeDuff and his crew spent extensive time there, making repeat visits, talking to many individuals about their circumstances, staying long after the demonstrations that attracted most other media, engaging with community leaders and “average residents.”
Among the many different people he spoke with in Ferguson and Flint and the high desert of Nevada, LeDuff noted a common theme: “The government is against me! Tyranny! Rage against the machine!”
Three months after white Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson shot the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, six times, killing him, Ferguson nervously awaited the grand jury decision about whether or not to charge Wilson with murder or manslaughter. Like all major news stories, Ferguson finally became about the coverage itself. LeDuff sets the scene, a la Hunter Thompson:
And so the media, the bicoastal honey babies, descended on Ferguson, Missouri, in the heart of Middle America. They were out of place here: primped, blown dry, ravenous, pushy, self-important. Mix that with a generous helping of white liberal do-gooders, white anarchists, black nationalists, international commentators, local bloggers, and the new class of do-it-yourself internet Hemingways and you had yourself a genuine, world-class goat fuck of discombobulation and vainglory…”
Unlike the locals, the media outsiders were hoping for “some good TV. Some flames and gas. Some screaming and looting…” to make their reputations. When the grand jury refused to indict the shooter, the predictable violence raged. But most media observers left on the run. “Two things were obvious about the police in Ferguson,” according to LeDuff. “They didn’t have a flipping clue, and they didn’t stand a freaking chance.”
LeDuff watched would-be presidential candidates – Cruz, Graham, Huckabee, Bush, et. al. – preen and spar in advance of the Iowa caucus, delivering their anti-immigration diatribes near slaughter houses and meat-packing plants full of Latino workers.
“It was obvious something was missing among the Republicans. They were not ready for prime time. Unless this was prime time. If it was, then we were in worse trouble than I’d thought.” The candidates weren’t addressing substantive issues like the failing cities, income inequality or climate change. But the media “couldn’t get enough of the man they universally despised. The Orange Oak was a danger to the status quo. And the status quo, of course, was largely composed of those self-important types sitting around the editorial tables, for whom he had no respect… Just three months into the race, Trump looked like the pick…
“The glass was half empty in America. Less than half of American households were now considered middle class, and half the middle-class wealth had evaporated during the Great Recession. Rent was eating half their paychecks…Economic insecurity was the biggest issue in America…But the lives of struggling white people don’t make good TV. They don’t make good copy.
“Through it all, the public’s trust in everything fell to all-time lows…” including the presidential candidates. “As for Congress, one imaginative polling firm found that brussel sprouts, head lice, cockroaches, colonoscopies and gonorrhea were more popular than our elected representatives…. while the public’s trust in [mainstream media] fell to its lowest level in recoded history… Whatever the reason, we had no one to blame but ourselves.”
When Chris Hedges interviewed Charlie LeDuff on his RT program, On Contact, the two men covered a lot of common ground. Both had been on Times reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes. But unlike LeDuff’s coming of age on the hardscrabble streets of Detroit, Hedges was formed by his studies at Harvard Divinity School and his many years as a foreign correspondent in Central American, European and Middle Eastern battle zones.
In 2003, as the U.S. war in Iraq began, Hedges gave a commencement address at Rockford College in Illinois. He told the graduates that:
…we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power and security.”
His audience booed him. His mic was cut and his talk abruptly stopped. Security guards escorted him off campus. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial excoriating him for his anti-war stance. The New York Times reprimanded him for compromising the paper’s impartiality and forbade him to discuss the war. He quit the Times soon thereafter.
Hedges had already published his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (2002), drawing on classical literature and his own experiences, to limn the dark allure of war’s pornographic violence, “filled with the monstrous and the grotesque… War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning, it creates a feeling of comradeship and alienation and makes us feel, for perhaps the first time in our lives, that we belong.”
His production of critical commentary remains prodigious. Besides publishing more than a dozen books about the crises of US culture and governance, Hedges writes a weekly column for Truthdig, hosts an interview program on RT, with guests rarely seen on mainstream media, appears often for interviews in print, on-line, on radio and television and gives public speeches. A recent On Contact revealed the surprising political biases and pressures behind the seemingly bland, authoritative entries in Wikipedia, a source many think of as neutral. But it’s not.
In his opening chapter of Farewell Tour, entitled “Decay,” Hedges visits Scranton, Pennsylvania Rockford, Illinois and Anderson, Indiana, once thriving, now struggling communities, bereft of the companies and unions that used to sustain their prosperous economies. As tax bases shrivel, local, state and federal governments cut vital services, an economic death spiral. Only the lowest wage jobs exist. Some citizens blame immigrants and minorities for their poverty.
The real causes of this blight are not mysterious, though seldom mentioned in US media. Bill Clinton’s NAFTA sent many factories to Mexico, to pay workers three dollars an hour and no benefits instead of the thirty-dollar-an-hour jobs with benefits in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Indiana that allowed workers to support a family in a decent style. There is also the problem, as Hedges notes, of “America’s militarized capitalism, which plows vast sums into a permanent war economy. Upward of half of all federal dollars are spent on the war industry. The Pentagon consumes nearly $600 billion a year..” but when military items hidden in other budgets are counted, “over $1 trillion a year.”
Meanwhile, “the half-dozen corporations that own most of the media have worked overtime to sell to a bewildered public the fiction that we are enjoying a recovery. Employment figures, through a variety of gimmicks, including erasing those who have been unemployed for over a year from unemployment rolls, are a lie, as is nearly every other financial indicator pumped out for the public.”
But government lies and mass media bromides cannot conceal the mounting despair that claims so many lives. “Opiod overdoses are the leading cause of death in this country for those under the age of fifty. Fifty-nine thousand people died in 2016 from overdoses, or 161 people a day. The United States consumes 80 percent of the global opioids.”
Insanely, as Hedges points out,
The $1 trillion the US government has spent since Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs has, by every measure, been a colossal failure.”
Between law enforcement and prisons, the U.S. spends about “$76 billion a year” to fight drug crime. But more Americans under 50 “die from overdoses than from heart disease, cancer, suicide, or traffic accidents. The number of deaths from overdoses has quadrupled since 1999.”
The atomization of American culture, the isolation many individuals feel from their communities or from other kindred souls, exacerbated by mass media and internet consumption, also breeds despair. Hedges recites alarming statistics:
One hundred and twenty-one Americans commit suicide daily… The overwhelming majority – 93 of the 121 – are men. Seven out of ten of these men are white and between the ages of forty-five and sixty-five. Around 44,193 Americans commit suicide every year and another 1.1 million Americans attempt suicide annually.”
Hedges offers a bracing analysis of how the ruling elites, “terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s,” and impervious to the economic and emotional plight of the growing American underclass, staged a “creeping corporate coup d’etat that today is complete.”
There is only space enough here to highlight a few points from his eloquent, detailed and devastating overview of the U.S. crisis that deserves to be widely read in its entirety. Hedges understands that “Trump is not an anomaly. He is the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy. Trump and his coterie of billionaires, generals, half-wits, Christian fascists, criminals, racists and moral deviants… embody the moral rot unleashed by unfettered capitalism.”
Hedges wrote an entire book about the dangerous rise of Christian fascism in America. He opines here that:
The merger of the corporatists with the Christian right is the marrying of Gozilla to Frankenstein.”
“On the surface it appears to be incongruous that the Christian right would rally behind a slick New York real estate developer who is a public serial philanderer and adulterer, has no regard for the truth, is consumed by greed, does not appear to read or know the Bible, routinely defrauds and cheats his investors and contractors, expresses a crude misogyny and an even cruder narcissism, and appears to yearn for despotism. In fact, these are the very characteristics that define many of the leaders of the Christian right.”
Hedges indicts the Democratic Party for failing to confront the real reasons for its electoral defeat in 2016. Democrats blamed Russian interference, leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, and FBI Director James Comey’s pre-election announcement about Clinton’s private e-mail server.
“It refused to acknowledge the root cause of its defeat, the abandonment of workers, deindustrialization, the wars in the Middle East, and vast social inequality.” The party betrayed the working and middle classes they claimed to represent and “lost credibility among those it has betrayed.” Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer appear unwilling or perhaps unable to confront these realities. Hedges sees this as “ominous, not only for the Democratic Party, but for American democracy.”
The failure of politicians and US media to acknowledge the real nature of American social and global decline, augers a dystopian future.
As deteriorating infrastructure and ongoing layoffs continue to beset the nation’s cities, more dramatic signs of neglect will appear. Garbage will pile up uncollected on curbsides. Power grids will blink on and off. There will not be enough police, firefighters or teachers. Pensions will be slashed or paid sporadically. Decent medial care will be reserved for the rich. Those who die because they cannot afford health care – now 45,000 uninsured people a year – will perish in greater numbers…”
The United States has squandered the moral authority the country enjoyed coming out of the Second World War. The CIA has overthrown governments around the globe, whether or not they were democratically elected, to install regimes more complaisant to U.S. corporate interests, no matter how authoritarian those regimes might be. Our many brutal, unnecessary “discretionary conflicts” in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East have turned many peoples of the world against the United States.
The photographs of physical abuse and sexual humiliation imposed on Arab prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison inflamed the Muslim world. They fed al Qaeda and later Islamic State with new recruits… The hundreds of thousands of dead, the millions of refugees fleeing our debacles in the Middle East, and the near-constant threat from militarized aerial drones, have exposed us as state terrorists. We have repeated in the Middle East the widespread atrocities, indiscriminate violence, lies, and blundering miscalculations that led to our defeat in Vietnam.”
What is to be done?
For Hedges, the answer is clear. We must resist the transparent lies of the corporate state and stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed by it.
“We must stop looking for salvation from strong leaders. Strong people, as the civil rights leader Ella Baker said, do not need strong leaders. Politicians, even good politicians, play the game of compromise and are seduced by the privileges of power.”
As Hedges has reason to know, “The power elites attempt to discredit those who resist…” Establishment critics attack Hedges because – despite his strong media presence – he is not singing from the power elite’s hymn book. Reviewers in The Washington Post and The New York Times have disparaged America: The Farewell Tour as “unrelieved in its negativism” and “righteous and self-righteous… addicted to fire and brimstone,” in order to dismiss his views instead of engaging with them.
In his 1863 Russian novel, What is to be done?, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, said the intellectual’s duty was to educate and lead the laboring Russian masses to a socialism that bypassed capitalism. Tolstoy and Lenin both later wrote tracts with the same title to promote their own notions of moral and political responsibility.
Chris Hedges teaches at Princeton and in the New Jersey prison system, sometimes combining students from both institutions in the same classes. That must make for a rich educational experience for all concerned. These interactions may help Hedges to formulate a way forward for the resistance to America’s militant, suicidal late capitalism.
Charlie LeDuff has also identified candidates ripe for an organized rage against the machine. Not Cliven Bundy’s brand of Nativist entitlement, or an intolerance of human differences, but a real anti-capitalist resistance based on mutual respect, a commitment to social justice and a reverence for the planet which has nurtured all our lives. LeDuff returned to Detroit radio in October, broadcasting his No BS News Hour, also available as a podcast.
We can only go forward all together, free of the corporate yoke.