The following column by contributing editor, journalist and author Mort Rosenblum is from his regular comment The MortReport. Global Insights Magazine/Global Geneva Group are supporting Mort’s insightful and frank reporting from different parts of the world. If you can donate to his journalistic endeavour – based on decades of unique reporting experience across the globe – please do so. Like his Citroen 2CV, they don’t make ’em like they used to.
PARIS — Okay, enough now. Climate scientists wring their hands but are not yet without hope. America’s Constitution, if fraying, is still intact. Paris is torn up and choked with traffic, but it’s not burning. We can save the world, but we had damned well better get started.
Cartoon courtesy Jeff Danziger.
As it turns out, Chicken Little was right; the sky is falling. Particulates poison the atmosphere. And herd impunity allows governments, industry and individuals to ravage what’s left down below. We face the unthinkable if enough sensible people cannot get a grip and take action.
The Ship of Fools, as Plato labeled humanity, is sinking fast. Rather than bail hard and head toward a safe harbor, we gouge yet more holes in the hull. Millions go hungry as a feckless few hoard dwindling food stocks. Each year, more turn violent in desperation.
I took a break from the Mort Report to ponder my last 40 years in the wilderness watching the world fall on its axis. Sorting out thoughts on how we benighted shipmates can get back on course, I realized the answer is embroidered in faux-Latin on my canvas desk chair.
In 1981, when a new breed of “media” executives began sacrificing principle for profit, Paul Theroux’s whimsical son Marcel was studying classics. I asked him to translate a maxim for reporters not willing to play piano in whorehouses: Make the Assholes Pay.
Marcel came up with “Facete Rectos Pagare,” which back then was mostly for laughs. The news business, though flawed, was self-correcting. Profit still depended on credibility. That suffered when competitors called out honest mistakes, let alone blatant lies.
Today, the assholes aren’t paying; the rest of us are. Partisan “news outlets” spew cesspools of falsehoods that enable faithless politicians and tax-averse moguls to replace democracy with small-f fascism. Just hold your nose and reflect on, say, Tucker Carlson.
A few billionaires contribute heavily on their own terms to causes they care about. Others blast off in near-space tourism, spewing toxicity on a planet fast approaching endgame.
Journalists now have the tools to transmit words and images at the speed of light from Earth’s most remote reaches. Yet most Americans are shockingly misinformed, or uninformed, about news that matters. What we don’t know is killing us.
The Glasgow climate copout was a death knell. Elected leaders and authoritarians alike put political survival ahead of urgent action. A coronavirus allowed to run rampant is killing millions and crippling economies as variants run through the Greek alphabet.
America’s skewed electoral system enthroned a madman with a jackal’s instincts. He forged greed and ignorance into a movement bent on a ruling-class oligarchy that censors school curricula and women’s rights over their own wombs.
Donald Trump is directly responsible for Covid-19 deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Yet he blames the crippling impact of that on Joe Biden, who would have contained the pandemic had Republicans not thwarted his quick action to vaccinate and mask Americans.
We all watched him sic armed mobs on the Capitol, the worst assault on Washington since the British set it on fire in 1812. Now civil servants then on the public payroll join him in flipping a finger at congressional investigators trying to pin down hard facts.
Republicans blocked an official inquiry, but the House select committee just turned up evidence that Mark Meadows, the president’s right-hand man, met eight to 10 times with a retired colonel to lay a step-by-step plan to overturn the election. This is treason.
On a global scale, the danger is far greater. All those fires, floods, tsunamis and droughts are hardly freak events, as self-interested deniers assert. They will worsen exponentially. And so will brushfire conflicts that flame into war for lack of effective, quiet diplomacy.
Dulled by apathy and ignorance, the United States is ceding global leadership to China, where modern mandarins use harsh repression, even genocide, in a Middle Kingdom that has asserted its global supremacy for 5,000 years. And there is so much else.
George Orwell foresaw much of this in his harrowing masterwork, “1984.” For me, the year to remember is 1981, when America dumped Jimmy Carter, a colorblind humanitarian who put solar panels on the White House, for a patrician actor who played the role of president.
Ronald Reagan cleaved a rift between castes in America. The “libertarian” Koch brothers and other über-rich conservatives targeted public schools to create dumbed-down hewers and haulers. They taught skills rather than social studies and discouraged critical thinking.
Then a fast-evolving internet changed everything. Everyone has direct access to infinite data and translated firsthand reporting on distant world-changing events. But the web also provides have-it-your-way “news” to comfort any personal fantasy, however absurd.
Reagan took office just after the launch of CNN, which now claims to be the most trusted name in news. We joked about Chicken Noodle Network in its early days. Crews ambled in the background behind anchors on camera. Reporters fluffed lines. But Ted Turner was interested in hard-bitten news professionals, with little thought to hair and makeup.
In 1981, I gave up one of the best jobs in journalism for an even better one. Turner poached Peter Arnett, who’d won a Pulitzer in Vietnam. I had just left as editor of the International Herald Tribune because its owners, including the New York Times, let the publisher run advertising supplements thinly disguised as news. My old boss at AP gave me Arnett’s job as special correspondent.
Rather than base in New York with editors at my elbow, I remained in Paris with a generous expense account and free rein to travel. I covered big news, wars and such, but in between looked for crucial underreported stories. For one, climate change.
My first trip was to Gaza by way of Syria and Israel. Next, I spent weeks with starving Somalis, caught between famine and Ethiopian incursions. Then I roamed refugee camps in Pakistan where two million Afghans had fled the Soviet invasion.
Today, each of those tragic situations is 40 years worse. A different sort of CNN still covers them. But, with notable exceptions, its quick live shots and panel-babble back home are not what Turner had in mind. If we don’t understand the nature of crises, we can’t solve them.
During the 1980s, I met Jack Blum, John Kerry’s chief investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He tried to stop the Contras — Reagan’s “freedom fighters” — who shipped cocaine to Florida in CIA planes while Nancy Reagan preached, “Just say no.”
Blum’s main fight was against Central American military thugs whose mass murder and torture created the conditions that force so many people to flee north today. Mitch McConnell, then a young senator, countered him at every turn.
A quietly crusading lawyer, Blum knows as much as anyone about global corruption. When I called to connect him to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which was starting its Panama Papers blockbuster, we talked about how journalism had changed.
I remarked that reporting used to be like flipping on a light in a room full of cockroaches. They all scrambled for the baseboards. Yeah, he replied. Now they just stay where they are and look around to see what they can learn from each other.
In a quest for eyeballs and advertising dollars, bedrock news organizations respond more to what research says audiences want rather than what informed citizens need to know. Faced with a nonstop torrent of “content,” few people have time to focus on what matters most.
Fox News is beneath contempt. But even CBS, the Ed Murrow-Walter Cronkite network, sold us Trump in 2016 when his plot against America was already clear. Les Moonves, the unembarrassed CEO, crowed about the ratings and profit. It is hard to ignore a circus.
Trump’s “fake news” jihad is straight out of the totalitarian’s handbook. Rule one is undermine observable truth and respect for those who try to report it. Five years later, the result is devastating.
First Amendment notwithstanding, public servants throttle reporters at home and inspire tyrants elsewhere to do far worse. And now billionaires muzzle honest journalism with baseless yet crippling lawsuits. Even gutsy Mother Jones pleads for legal defense funds.
Consider the case of Alan Weisman, among the most scrupulous, thorough and even-handed reporters I know. He went to Minnesota for book research and to write a Los Angeles Times op-ed about Ojibwe protesters trying to stop Canadians from poisoning groundwater.
Enbridge Inc., noted for past spills and leaks, is rerouting an oil pipeline under the Mississippi River and tributaries, including wild rice harvesting grounds granted to Indians in 19th century treaties. It has acquired eminent domain rights to land along the route. Sheriff’s departments, which it openly funds, act as its security force.
Busloads of truncheon-wielding lawmen swooped in after dozens of protesters locked themselves to equipment at a pump station. Festooned with press badges, Alan identified himself to officers. A few moments later, as he was photographing, a sheriff arrested him.
At the county jail, he was stripped for an anal cavity inspection, denied a phone call and locked in a windowless cell. But he managed to alert colleagues before jailers found his cell phone.
He was released four hours later after repeated calls to the sheriff. One was mine. Politely but unapologetically, he said reporters were not above the law. Neither, I replied, are sheriffs. Though freed, Alan faced a potential year in prison and a heavy fine. His lawyer cut him a break, but legal fees still ran into five figures. Charges were dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning they could be reinstated at any time.
For months, Alan has nervously watched his mailbox for bad news while helping press-freedom groups to defend reporters’ rights. That delayed work on his trilogy, after “The World Without Us” and “Countdown” – essential guidance on saving our planet.
Across the world, at least 24 journalists — and possibly another 18 — were killed on the job this year. By the end of November, according to one count, 293 were thrown in prison, a new high.
No one reading this far needs details on lunatics who infest Congress and statehouses — or how Republicans have packed the courts. Trump’s coup attempt is flat-out sedition. Yet his partisans, flush with investment windfalls from their $1.9 trillion tax cut, are blatantly gaming the electoral system to put him back in the White House.
And there is the other side. While Republicans move in lock step, eschewing all decency and integrity to regain power, Democrats ease their path with factional infighting. The big-tent party once rallied around a ringmaster at crunch time. That is over.
Americans eager for a seasoned hand to steer the ship of state back on course chose Biden by seven million popular votes. Yet in other races down ballot, anti-Trump Republicans and independents were spooked by extreme positions, with slogans like “defund the police.”
Biden is rebuilding alliances abroad and dealing with calamities he inherited. But a deadlocked Congress stymies his policies at home. Despite 4.2 percent unemployment and booming stock markets, even Democrats assail him.
He makes some bad moves, as presidents do. He is seldom a ball of fire at the podium. But Americans have had an actor and a bumbling doofus. They chose a puffed-up snake oil salesman over a seasoned stateswoman. Now they have a decent man with a workable plan.
Ironically, Biden’s approval ratings plummeted after doing what polls showed voters wanted him to do and what he tried to do as vice president: extract America from Afghanistan. The reaction starkly exemplifies America’s disconnect with the outside world.
From France, I followed the Afghanistan collapse by switching between BBC and CNN, two separate universes. On the Beeb, correspondents I’d worked with in Kabul after 9/11 were still at it after following the ins and outs for 20 years.
Yalda Hakim, who fled with her family to Australia during the Soviet war, interviewed top Afghan and Taliban leaders she knew well, along with local reporters on shaky telephone lines in remote provinces. Lyse Doucet, an Afghanistan expert since 2003, asked piercing questions with her engaging smile.
Even redoubtable John Simpson was back, this time without the burqa he famously wore as camouflage in 2001. BBC’s regional bureau and military analysts in London outlined what is at stake as China, Russia and terrorist groups move in after disgraced America slunk away.
Trump made debacle unavoidable by snubbing the Afghan government to capitulate to the Taliban, freeing 5,000 fighters from prison and making no plans to evacuate endangered Afghans and foreigners. When Biden took over, he advanced the withdrawal date so that President Ashraf Ghani could negotiate a handover.
But Ghani sneaked away as the Taliban approached Kabul, and the inevitable happened when long bitter wars suddenly end. Banks closed, and panicked throngs mobbed Kabul airport. Desperate people fell to their death from aircraft landing gear.
CNN coverage centered on Clarissa Ward, who in 2018 replaced Christiane Amanpour as chief international correspondent. On that first chaotic day at the airport, she declared the airlift a calamitous failure. She saw no way substantial numbers could be evacuated.
Pre-positioned troops swarmed in the next day to fly out 116,000 people in two weeks, a stunning military feat. But that first impression stuck. As with Covid-19’s impact on America, Trump blames Biden. That, he tells cheering crowds, was the worst debacle in history.
The New Yorker set the record straight in a two-part analysis of the collapse. But Tony the plumber, my friend in Tucson, doesn’t read much. He heaped scorn on Biden. “I appreciate hearing what you say,” he told me, “but I can’t say I agree with your opinion.” Mindsets like that don’t change.
Republicans willing to block investigation of a murderous insurrection, curb voting rights, enable states to nullify election results and more are capable of anything. Vast sums will be spent to defeat popular Democrats like Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke.
If you’re not alarmed enough, pore over Thomas Edsall’s toe-curling piece in the Times (link attached below), “How to Tell When Your Country is Past the Point of No Return.” In short, a creeping takeover goes unnoticed by too many for too long. The frog may already be boiled.
Only thundering landslides can exorcise the pod people who inhabit a Grand Old Party that is vital to democracy. Any uncast ballot is a vote for the dark side. The stakes are far higher than America’s future.
Trump’s ham-handed diplomacy pushed Tehran toward war, spurring Iran’s nuclear capacity as it did North Korea’s. By chest-bumping China and coddling Russia, he created hot spots all over the map. But because of assholes’ climate denial, the greatest challenge is actual heat.
Consider one example of what faces humanity, Plato’s “ship of fools.” In cool, drizzly British Columbia, thermometers in Lytton reached 49.6 degrees (121.3 F) in late June. Early in July, wildfire obliterated the little town in minutes.
Americans need to vote in every election, down to local school boards, as if there were no tomorrow. On the course we’re on — sooner than we think — there likely won’t.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.