Some Thoughts for Aspiring Journalists and Public Servants

Magnus gubernator et scisso navigat vello.  A great helmsman can navigate even when his sail is torn.

— Seneca, Moral Letters, 30. 3.

This is as true today as it was in antiquity. A president who steers the Ship of State knows that human nature is weak and that government officials are sometimes tempted to abuse their power. It is for this reason that he welcomes a free press to ensure honesty in his administration.

Journalists asking trenchant questions are worth their weight in gold. They protect the public from dishonest public servants, who, for example, advocate for small government as a dog whistle for what on the surface looks like economizing on the taxpayer’s dime but is actually an invitation to dishonesty. It is a transparent ruse to fire government investigators and lawyers who examine complaints about corporations accused of fraud or violating federal laws and regulations that protect the public health, safety, and the environment.

If it weren’t for intrepid journalists like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and David Graham Phillips in the early twentieth century, the public couldn’t be sure that members of a president’s administration were complying with the law. This is especially true when a department or agency may receive hundreds of complaints that corporations are polluting the environment and posing a public health hazard, but at the same time are big contributors to a governor’s or congressional member’s re-election campaign.

In such cases, those contributions must be returned lest they be perceived by the public as hush money by those corporations breaking the law. When in doubt, one checks the politician’s voting record against his political donors list for a possible conflict of interest or, more bluntly, a possible bribe, in which case a call to the congressional member’s office will suffice. For some corporations, a campaign contribution may well be intended as “protection money” for congressional “friends” to look the other way when those corporations run afoul of the law, like dumping toxic waste in a river.

This is where the press is essential for ensuring that the government is telling the truth by actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing. History is full of governments that lied to their people, so what’s to stop modern governments from following in that grand old tradition?

In electing men and women to political office, the people give these representatives tremendous power over themselves and take an enormous risk. How can they be sure that these officials won’t abuse their power, turn on the people, set up a dictatorship, lock people up, take over the courts, abolish unions, and silence journalists as was done in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and, as in the case of Julian Assange, is being done today by the US, UK, Sweden, and supporting western governments?

A free press has always been the scourge of would-be dictators, who fear these professional skeptics who ensure that the public is getting the truth rather than government handouts or spin.

This is also why we need an educated electorate that knows how to think critically and question whatever their leaders are saying and doing and not blindly trusting them as so often happens today. However, this takes courage, but is important because you may wind up believing whatever you’re told, which is fine for children but hardly for those in a democracy who may wake up in a concentration camp. A free people must also be a nation of skeptics, who cannot assume that their leaders are honest.

Let me invite you into a journalist’s stream of consciousness when interviewing a questionable public servant: Am I getting the whole story here? What’s being omitted?  Am I being misled? Is this person honest, an ideologue, a pathological liar, a shill for his party?

Why is he offering fluff and no substance? Doesn’t he realize how transparent he is? Why this incessant chatter? Is he trying to keep me at bay? He doesn’t seem qualified for his position at all. Doesn’t he realize the impression he’s making? Offering only tired clichés and talking in circles. How would he reconcile what he’s saying with what others have told me about this same problem?

Let’s see how he’ll answer these questions: How do you reconcile your oath of office with what just came out in the papers? How do you see your responsibility toward protecting the people? If you had all the money and power you needed, how would you change your department for the better? In what way could you do more for the people? When exactly did you find out about this scandal that just came to light? Didn’t your staff alert you that something was wrong? How can you assure the public that something like this won’t ever happen again? Shouldn’t there be a better early-warning-system in place? The public is blaming you for what happened? What is your comment?

But journalists shouldn’t stop there; they should interview other officials of other political parties and past administrations. They should elicit as much information as possible, deal with their implications, fit them together within a much larger picture, and present their conclusions to the public. They are the people’s safeguard against deception, and an honest administration welcomes this concern because these genuine journalists are the people.

Some governments, however, fear a free press because their politicians are dishonest and engaged in all sorts of corruption which they try to conceal by setting up barriers lest their crimes be exposed. Rather than putting journalists in jail, concentration camps, or murdering them outright as in former days, they ridicule them, question their patriotism, and try to undermine their credibility by turning the public against them by calling them “the enemy of the people.” They sidestep legitimate questions the people want answered, all the while being confident that the public won’t suspect what they’re doing, not realizing that they’re setting off alarm bells about their corruption.

Now, there are two possibilities – either the journalists are lying or the government is. Who would have more incentive to do so? Journalists, who are risking their reputations, imprisonment, or lives in uncovering the truth, or a government engaging in cover-up? Why would journalists lie if having worked their sources and following up leads, they discovered the evidence and were about to release it?

A free press is never the enemy of the people, but its only hope by providing public oversight and accountability. It isn’t as if those in office have been placed there by some Divine Right of Kings, but solely on sufferance of the people. It may occasionally happen, however, that a leader may become so drunk with power as to take leave of his senses and fancy that he is above the law, the infallible sign for removal from office.

Those in cabinet posts swear an oath to safeguard their department’s integrity, and if they fail to honor that oath, they should be tried for perjury, sent to prison, and barred from political office for life. This should be the fate of any official, no matter how powerful, who uses her office to enrich herself. Government needs relentless oversight, and a free press with the courage to provide it. This isn’t harassment, but simply performing its duty.

Salus populi suprema lex.  The people’s welfare is the highest law.

— Cicero, On Laws, 3. 3. 8.

If you’re thinking of becoming a journalist, you may want to read what follows about public servants trying to do the right thing.

Your first priority as a member of Congress is to forget yourself and think only of the people who put you there by ensuring that their interests always come first. They are the only reason you entered politics, and your allegiance should always be to them and never to corporations, their enablers or lobbyists, who will be only too willing to contribute to your re-election campaign.

The quid pro quo would naturally be your soul by passing laws that would jeopardize the people, who are your fellow human beings. Accepting money from corporations is signing a Faustian bargain with the Powers of Darkness.

Moreover, members of Congress with stock in Big Oil and Big Pharma will never vote against their financial interests regardless of what the people want, although recent congressional action may put a stop to this scandal. Furthermore, two Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have undermined President Biden’s progressive agenda that would have helped over three hundred million Americans in countless ways, and yet these senators have found it possible to live with themselves.

Then there was the incomparable Bill Bradley, the celebrated college and professional basketball player, Rhodes scholar, stellar New Jersey Democratic senator whom many thought would have made a wonderful President, who left politics in the mid-1990s after three terms in office because he felt that our government was “broken,” a gentleman’s euphemism for irredeemably corrupt.

People are the reason you’re in politics, and once you forget that, you’re no longer worthy of your office. You can never let anything get in the way of this commitment for they are the reason our nation was founded. They are the bedrock of our democracy and they should never be exploited, cheated, or robbed by Big Business, and yet this happens daily. You must develop a tolerance for working in such an environment by learning not to inhale.

Democracy is about freedom from corporate tyranny, which wants to own both politicians and judges to make laws and decide cases in favor of these corporations to the detriment of the people as collateral damage as an acceptable price of doing business. They are hired guns as guilty as the corporations whose crimes they enable.

They and the CEOs responsible for the laws and policies which cause sickness and death should be tried and imprisoned for life. If they knew that they would be held accountable, the practice would stop. As President Calvin Coolidge once said, “The business of America is business.” This cavalier dismissal of human life is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it has become invisible.

There once was a time in our country when a person was thought to be a flesh-and-blood human being. Then something incredible happened when corporations became more important than actual people who stood in the way of corporate profits, the beginning of our government’s moral rot.

They then set about convincing judges and politicians that they were even more real with more legal rights than real people, who could then be legally sacrificed upon the altar of corporate greed to appease the Gods of Quarterly Profits. This is the cornerstone of American business and political life, corrupting everyone who makes his peace with this system.

How many other such evils gradually become invisible to American eyes because they have become so “familiar” as though they were part of the natural order! Familiarity breeds not only contempt, but also invisibility! Jesse James robs a railroad train and the law is in hot pursuit, but a hedge fund manager robs an entire railroad company and everyone yawns.

“Corporate bribes,” a.k.a. campaign contributions, “dark money,” and PACS have corrupted every branch and level of government, so that money makes a mockery of a government that claims to be honest because the very politicians who could end the practice profit from it.

Corporations run the country at both the federal and state levels because Congress and state legislatures enact these laws, some even drafted by lobbyists themselves, to ensure that corporate interests are enshrined in those laws. The Rich and Powerful own the politicians. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough of them who so anger the people that they are now demanding radical change.

This is class warfare against the American people by the Rich and Powerful whose will has become law by a complicit Congress, another evil of our political system. The upshot is that many federal and state congressional members have willingly allied themselves with corporations, while continuing to betray the people in defiance of their oath of office.

Which raises the question, to enter political life must one check one’s morals at the door? Become schizophrenically moral in one’s personal life and blissfully immoral in one’s political life? Is this really the way it has to be?  Shouldn’t conscience also matter on Capitol Hill, the White House, and in the august chambers of the Supreme Court itself?

If at some future time you are in political office and feel tempted by corporate campaign contributions, it may be time to retire from political life. Staying on may cause you to betray your oath and yourself. This is why term limits are so important because if your goal is to stay in office, you may do anything to remain there even betray the very people who trusted you to protect them against such villany.

All the above is an open secret about government, and anyone thinking of devoting their life to politics or journalism must understand the relentless pressure you will be under. Perhaps it is asking more than weak human beings can bear, yet some do succeed in keeping faith with themselves.

As a journalist, be ever on your guard against being used, manipulated, or invited to become “a friend” of government officials. Avoid such invitations and always keep your professional distance lest you find it hard to write critically about such “friends,” when they’re giving you “exclusives” to advance your career, when you’ve only become their creature and lose the respect of your fellow journalists and, more importantly, of yourself and your family.

This is the challenge of American politics today, and the younger generation should understand what has been happening in this country, especially since the 1980’s. If you’re thinking of entering politics or becoming a journalist, it’s important that you do so with your eyes wide open.

You may already realize much of this, but nevertheless are still planning to enter government or to write about it to help cure American political life from within.  While in college, you may be majoring in pre-law, political science, history, sociology, philosophy, or journalism. Read widely in and outside these fields.  Talk to your professors about what is going on in the country today. Invite journalists to your class and sit at their feet and drink in their wisdom. They are the real deal, consummate professionals, battle-hardened veterans, Samurai warriors who have been to the mountain. Their informal talks are indispensable for getting beneath the headlines and are an education like no other. They will teach you how to avoid the quicksand.

Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher in the New Jersey public school system. Read other articles by Frank.