One reason that Alabama is a breeding ground for corruption--by state judges, federal judges, federal prosecutors, and so on--is that there is very little serious journalism practiced in the state.
The large newspapers tend to take a pro-corporate viewpoint, and they have no interest in shining a light on wrongdoing by Alabama's GOP hierarchy. Small newspapers tend to be short-staffed and don't have the manpower to take on statewide investigative projects.
And television? Several stations have supposed "investigators" or "we're on your side" kinds of segments. But they are more into exposing some heating and air conditioning guy who didn't install the right filter than they are looking at corrupt public officials. I've seen little if any indication that they are willing to look at serious stories that truly would serve the public interest.
So how bad is it? Scott Horton, of Harper's, presented a vignette the other day that many readers might have missed. It was in a post about a reissue of Liberty and the News, a book by the great American journalist Walter Lippmann.
Horton contrasts Lippmann's work in the 1920s with the prevailing attitude in many newsrooms today. At the heart of Horton's story is a recent conversation he had with a reporter at an important medium-sized city newspaper in north Alabama.
The reporter's colleague had done a series of hard-hitting reports on corruption in the administration of public contracts in Alabama. Our state's Republican governor (Horton doesn't name him, but it clearly is Bob Riley) called the paper's publisher to complain about the articles and say he wanted such reporting to stop.
The publisher summoned the reporter in question from Montgomery and advised him that he had a "fixation with contract corruption," and stories on the subject were to cease.
If had to guess, I would say the newspaper in question was the Huntsville Times, and the offending reporter was Bob Lowry. I guess we won't be seeing more of the strong stories Lowry had produced on the awarding of state contracts.
"Alabama's descent into the status of an American banana republic has much to do with the mortally corrupted standards of its major papers," Horton writes, "with only a couple of notable exceptions in the small cities."
It's interesting that Horton used the term "banana republic" because that is precisely the phrase my wife and I finally came up after months and years of trying to come up with a concise description of the mind-numbing corruption we have experienced in Shelby County, Alabama, and its nasty little county seat, Columbiana.
"Lippmann tells us that you can hardly have a real democracy without a functioning press," Horton writes.
And that tells us why Alabama's democracy is in a shambles.
I see no sign that Alabama's major news outlets are going to change. So we can all thank God for the Internet. And we can thank God that an "outsider," Scott Horton, has used the Web to alert the public to the sleaze that permeates government and justice in our state.
Will it ultimately make a difference? There is reason to hope. But the process probably won't be fast and it definitely won't be easy.
The Montgomery Independent, though a weekly paper, has appeared to done a good job covering Alabama Politics..including publishing Horton's articles.
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