No Brass Check Journalists
by Studs Terkel
In These Times magazine,
Upton Sinclair self-published a book called
The Brass Check in 1919, 13 years after The Jungle. The brass
check was the coin used in whorehouses. The customer went up to
see the madam and he would pay his two bucks this was long before
inflation-and receive a brass check, which he would give to the
And at the end of the day the girl would
cash in all her brass checks and get half a buck apiece. So Upton
Sinclair took the brass check, and made it a reference to the
press in those days. The journalists were pretty much brass check
artists, they were like the girls in the brothel. And how much
of that has changed in the past century?
Think about the coverage of George Bush,
especially after 9/11, when David Broder, a solid, centrist journalist,
compared Bush to Abraham Lincoln. That gives you an idea of the
nonsense we have to deal with these days. We're not talking now
about the right-wing pundits, of whom nothing much need be said,
we're talking about journalists like Broder who are considered
part of the "liberal media," which is of course an obscene
phrase because of the burlesque nature of it. Another horrendous
example of the media and its cravenness was the lack of attention
paid to Sen. Robert Byrd (D - W.V.) in September 2002. Here we
had a conservative Democratic senator making one of the most eloquent
addresses attacking the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act and the Bush administration
for endangering our civil liberties, and for violating the constitution.
It was a fantastic speech. You would have thought it would make
headlines. Here was the dean of the Senate speaking about dangers
to our fundamental rights. And the fact that it got so little
reportage says more than you want to know about the media.
The other aspect of media today is its
triviality. Trivia and political thought have become one. We have
a new Teflon girl, Oprah Winfrey, who had Arnold Schwarzenegger
on as a guest while he was a candidate for governor. It was a
kiss-kiss hour. I don't know how many millions of women watch
her program, but it seems that she would at least have his leading
opponent, Cruz Bustamante, on. But no one questioned the idea
of Oprah having Schwarzenegger on as a guest in the midst of a
campaign without any rebuttal. This was a farce that could be
designed only by W. C. Fields-a recall election and the leading
candidate being a muscle-headed muscle-man actor. It seems to
me that trivia and hype and style have taken over debate.
At the same time I am not going to be
overwhelmingly pessimistic. There is reason for optimism.
Hope Dies Last (the name of my new book)
is a phrase used by Jessie de la Cruz, who worked very closely
with Cesar Chavez organizing the farm workers. She said that whenever
times were bleak, they had a phrase, "la esperanza muere
ultima- hope dies last." Because what is the alternative?
Despair. And with despair, all that is left is the head in the
oven, or about 20 sleeping pills and a couple of martinis-or in
my case a dozen martinis.
Hope has always been the hallmark of dissenters.
We know something happened on September 11, 2001, but there is
another day-February 15, 2003- what I call "almost liberation
day," when 10 million people across the world acting for
peace attended protests against Bush's preemptive strike at Iraq.
That hope continues as an undercurrent in the many, many community
groups. The issue could be the environment as well as peace, or
civil liberties under John Ashcroft. The question is: Can it be
I must make a confession here. I am a
fellow alumnus of John Ashcroft; we both attended the University
of Chicago Law School. I was there about 30 years before he was,
but he is much older than I am. I maintain John Ashcroft is at
least 300 years old, because he is simply the reincarnation of
the Reverend Samuel Parris we saw in Arthur Miller's play The
Crucible. The subject was witchcraft. We were as afraid of witchcraft
then as we are of terrorists today. Reverend Parris came into
Salem, as the chief prosecutorial officer, like Ashcroft is now.
He pointed to the young hysterical girls and said you are not
with me if you challenge me, you are consorting with the devil-with
Fantasy is at work here. Miller's play
is at work here. W.C. Field's scenario is at work here. And over
and above it all is this question: What's to be done?
One of the things that keeps people from
doing what they know they should do for their own good is the
national Alzheimer's disease. There is no memory of the past.
There is no yesterday. There was no Depression. There was no New
Deal. There is no memory that when the free market, which is our
religion, fell on its fanny, the free marketeers-I call them free
buccaneers-pleaded with the government, "Please help us out.
Please save us." And of course the New Deal and regulation
did. Now the sons and grandsons and daughters and granddaughters
of those whose asses were saved by the New Deal, by big government,
are the ones who most condemn big government today. And they are
getting away with it, because of the media.
The key is not simply to dissent, but
to turn the country around. What's to be done is to act. To act
is to do, to do is to cast your ballot, and to do is also to ask:
Who is representing what? Which leads to the Democratic primary
Of course my candidate, Dennis Kucinich,
who I knew as the boy mayor of Cleveland, is the ideal candidate
for president. But he has as much chance of being nominated as
the Chicago Bears do of winning the Super Bowl. He has no money
and he is not known. It comes to hype again. One out of 100 people
know his name.
Name recognition is what he needs, so
that the Democratic Leadership Council, a toady group that has
steadily moved the party to the right, will be forced to give
him time on the platform I at the Democratic Party Convention;
multi-millions would then be aware of his presence and his significance.
I suppose the best of the lot, if it is
not Dennis Kucinich, would be Howard Dean, because he is at least
challenging the Democratic Leadership Council, which is of course
the albatross that is somehow still at the rudder of that sinking
ship. Had the Democratic Party true leadership, Kucinich would
be the candidate. And, of course, if he were nominated, he would
win. In a debate with Bush there would be a knockout in the first
round, there would be no competition. And this is the perfect
time for that, except for the role of the media.
Fortunately, we have an alternative press.
The effect of the alternative press is seemingly minor, but it
has a ripple-in-the-water effect. You can tell that by reading
the letters to the editor in the Chicago Tribune-my barometer
of what the public is thinking. But aside from alternative journals
like In These Times and Bill Moyers and humorist Jon Stewart on
television, Upton Sinclair's brass checks are alive and well today.
Now is the time to act, and, thus, become
what we were born to be-thinking, active citizens of a democratic