Truths About the American Way

In the real world, Clark Kent would have been forced out of newspapers years ago. Too old.

And in today’s world of American newspapers, even Superman couldn’t replace the lost ad revenues that has decimated news staffs.

But in the latest comic book series, Superman’s writers don’t have Clark Kent stand and deliver those truths when he quits his job as a reporter for The Daily Planet.

Instead, Kent gives the kind of speech that ordinary reporters fantasize about – and some act on: He’s tired of chasing entertainment that passes for news. He’s resigning to pursue truth, justice and the American way.

Superman writer Scott Lobdell told USA Today (a newspaper that has done its part to push entertainment): “While it has its problems, there are a lot of good things to say about America and the American way, and I’m glad Clark is standing up for her. … We’re going to really see Clark come into his own in the next few years as far as being a guy who takes to the Internet and to the airwaves and starts speaking an unvarnished truth.”

Unvarnished truth? In an Internet universe teeming with unlimited attractions?

Some journalists bemoan Clark Kent’s career change. The fact is, American newspapers have never had a claim to the pursuit of truth and justice. They have always been hit or miss.

For me, it’s hard to look at some of the problems we have in the U.S. and not wonder: Where were the newspapers when all these problems were in their infancy and could have been stopped?

Consider, for example, the city of San Bernardino, Calif., one of the latest cities in that state to file for bankruptcy. Now in its death throes, the city is receiving national attention. NPR ran a story recalling the city’s historic connection to Route 66, its birthplace of McDonald’s, its “American Graffiti” memories.

Reuters News Service recently weighed in with a two-part series.

“In San Bernardino, a third of the city’s 210,000 people live below the poverty line, making it the poorest city of its size in California. But a police lieutenant can retire in his 50s and take home $230,000 in one-time payouts on his last day, before settling in with a guaranteed $128,000-a-year pension. Forty-six retired city employees receive more than $100,000 a year in pensions,” said Reuters.

“San Bernardino succumbed to a vicious circle of self-interests among city workers, local politicians and state pension overseers,” according to Reuters. It’s the same path being traveled by other municipalities in California.

How come the power of the press didn’t call attention to this years ago?
In some cases, the press did. But people didn’t care, or they had other concerns. Safety and survival, for instance.

I worked at The San Bernardino Sun newspaper from the late 1980s until 1999. The paper then was owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. (and publisher of USA Today). Journalists like to complain about the mediocrity of Gannett. But the company had standards, and we were expected to work hard.

When I began reporting at The Sun, San Bernardino was already starting the slide from a once-thriving middle-class city. Kaiser Steel Mill in nearby Fontana was being dismantled along with its family-wage jobs. Norton Air Force Base would soon follow.

Like its neighbors – Fontana, Colton, Rialto and Highland – San Bernardino eagerly approved housing subdivisions, ripping out citrus orchards and vineyards to offer affordable commuter neighborhoods for workers in L.A. – back when today’s gas prices were unthinkable. Long commutes don’t just muddy the air with smog. They don’t allow commuters much time for community involvement or even time to read a newspaper.

In 1997, one of my colleagues developed a database of code enforcement violations, property foreclosures, and other hard facts used to analyze the health of a city. She wrote a disturbing series detailing just how dire San Bernardino’s future could be.

Then-Mayor Tom Minor (a retired cop) was quoted as saying, “San Bernardino is like any other city that’s old and tired and has lost a lot of jobs. . . . I don’t think there’s a lot the city can do.”

While New York’s Rudy Giuliani was tackling “The Broken Window Syndrome” as if he’d invented it, San Bernardino’s politicians were acting like they didn’t know what it was.

San Bernardino and its environs deteriorated into crash pads for Southern California gangs and drug dealers. Middle-class families moved if they could. For the poor and law-abiding, there was often no way out.

The crime rate soared, and certain homicides became routine: A Hispanic man would be killed one day, and the next day a black man would take a bullet. Or vice versa.

Occasionally a story would stand out as especially callous: An 8-year-old Hispanic girl shot through the head in a drive-by while she crayoned in a coloring book in her living room. Two young black men gunned down practically at high noon on a busy street. A 24-year-old Hispanic man working on a bicycle with a 15-year-old friend both shot dead one evening by two black gunmen who walked by, opened fire and moseyed on.

Entire neighborhoods didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, didn’t know anything.

Although I included race and ethnicity here, it would take a few years for my newspaper – sensitive to Gannett’s mandate to mainstream minorities in news coverage and not stereotype them – before we would acknowledge that young black and brown men were behind much of the violence in San Bernardino. Finally, it couldn’t be ignored.

At one point a police lieutenant and a detective appealed to the city’s Human Relations Commission, a group whose members represented various races and ethnicities. The officers wanted help on a double homicide involving two victims, who had no gang affiliations and were apparently targeted because they were Hispanic.

Rabbi Hillel Cohn, who was commission chairman at the time, was agreeable but not streetwise.

“You need a good informant?” he said innocently.

Commissioner Michelle Beauregard took offense that she was being asked to snitch. She was the daughter of a black San Bernardino councilwoman.

“Everybody in the neighborhood knows who killed ‘em,” she said.

That’s the kind of place San Bernardino became. The daughter of a city councilwoman could announce at a public meeting that she knew who killed two people, but she wasn’t helping the cops.

Neighborhoods with victims and killers living side by side out of necessity might have an excuse for not cooperating. But the daughter of a prominent black leader has no excuse.

Police got their own revenge – ever heftier paychecks, generous benefits and pensions.

Job dissatisfaction isn’t the only thing that fuels police unions’ greed. Police become more powerful as the citizens become more fearful and politicians become more inept. And police, perhaps more so than the general public, hold politicians in contempt.

In the 1990s when San Bernardino County was threatening to lay off deputies to balance the budget, the sheriff’s union (on its own time) started investigating reports of high-ranking county officials making illegal and questionable charges on county credit cards.

Quickly, county officials found a $30 million bailout to avoid deputy layoffs by taking out a loan against unpaid property taxes.

Not surprisingly, the union figured it was onto something. On its own time, it examined several years of county officials’ credit card receipts and expense reimbursements. They found evidence of fraud and presented a detailed report to the District Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute.

Instead, sheriff’s deputies were offered a 14 percent pay raise over three years.
My colleagues and I wrote stories about all of this. It got a few public officials in trouble, but what did any of it substantively change? How many other public employee unions have learned that one way to negotiate a pay raise is to dig up dirt on the boss?

I understand Clark Kent’s frustration and desire for a career change. But I don’t think Internet journalism is going to grab readers by the throat and force change anymore than print journalism.

Superman is a Supercop — with strict moral standards, as opposed to an ordinary cop with all the potential defects of a human. Superman doesn’t need an alter-ego.

If his writers need one for story material, maybe they should have Superman’s alter-ego do what a fair number of cops have done – run for public office. Maybe he could be a city councilman in a town going to hell. There are plenty to choose from in America.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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