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Why aren't more of today's journalists doing research and avoiding indifference?

WARNING: This column could be hazardous to readers' linear thought processes.

A friend is outraged because a firm based in Australia is under contract to build housing at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Another friend is badmouthing China after reading news reports on contaminators in everything from pet food to toothpaste. Among the tastiest tomatoes around are those grown in Willcox by African immigrants trucked in from Tucson working for a Dutch company.

Welcome to the world of free trade, global markets and, in the case of China, one more nation transitioning from a traditional, artisan-based economy to one ruled by capitalist imperatives.

Consider this a backdrop to a recent New York Times story headlined, "New Populism Is Spurring Democrats on the Economy." The article addresses "the case for populism" and the "latest populist resurgence" while assuming its readers have any understanding of the old populists. Using an undefined term from the 19th century is a superficial way for a reporter to convey the discontent and insecurities today's American citizens are increasingly articulating.

What the term does is label Democrats with a rubric that both colors and limits political debate. Intentional or not, such an outcome is far removed from the media's primary job: to report facts. But a July 15 piece by Robin Toner referencing a "full-throated populist critique" in the first paragraph is an example of a writer overstepping the reporter role. (Is a "full-throated populist" some kind of bird, not to be confused with the narrow- or long-throated populist? Or perhaps Toner is attempting a Shakespearean turn-of-phrase. Could be an English major.)

What is galling about the NYT article is its lack of urgency, its tone of "politics as usual" and its reporter's refusal to jump in and ask hard questions rather than rely on language lacking both specificity and substance on a topic average Americans find overwhelming in its complexity and threatening to their well-being.

Toner writes: "Democratic leaders in the House recently announced that their legislative priorities did not include the renewal of the president's 'fast track' authority to negotiate new trade agreements, which expired this month. First, they said, they want to find ways 'to expand the benefits of globalization to all Americans.'"

This unreferenced quote amounts to a load of untreated sewage. My first comment is, "Who the hell is 'they?'" My second comment is, "If you are going to use such empty rhetoric in an article, at least ask a question that offers the possibility of cutting through the bull. So why not ask, 'Can you name a few benefits of globalization to the average American, without considering an exploding stock market?'"

One of the problems with asking provocative questions is the risk involved. Imagine a reporter in the nation's capital (the piece was datelined Washington), likely tipsy (if not inebriated) on the stench of political power and understanding that staying employed depends on not alienating sources and not making waves any greater than can be generated by a 2-year-old in a kiddie pool.

Around the time of Joe McCarthy and his band of loonies, most of the certifiably paranoid were on public display. (Reason eventually prevailed, but not before lives were ruined and careers shattered.) Today, the madness runs deeper, quieter and is far more dangerous, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that many reporters are looking to get along, get by and get ahead. If "access" and keeping a job require stepping back from any semblance of journalistic ideals, so be it.

Newspaper folk tend to be a somewhat cynical bunch--at least in their professional persona. But cynicism, indifference and careerism make for a toxic stew guaranteed to contribute to the stupefaction of a dangerously large number of American voters.

Times reporters aren't the only ones guilty of violating the first rule of good journalism: Care enough about what you're writing to do research generating intelligent, relevant questions.

My friend, who was outraged by the news that an Australian firm was going to profit from building base housing, didn't get much information from a July 12 Arizona Daily Star story that read more like a press release than a news story. It's terrific to learn company officials project $165 million being "injected" into the local economy, but the story--largely a paean to globalized privatization--neglects to answer the most basic questions: How was this firm chosen? Were any U.S. firms considered? If not, why not?

And my friend who thinks Chinese goods are so much worse than many others floating around in a winner-take-all global economic environment would be wise to remember any capitalist's top priority--be it a Chinese manufacturer or U.S. big pharma--is profit, not product safety.

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