on December 5, 2009
When school children learn all about Presidents' Day and the Revolutionary War in primary school they hear about the important men who invented America and its founding documents.
What they never learn about in primary school, or even in high school, is how writers, reporters and the printing press invented America through all variety of newspapers, pamphlets and print media that detailed the workings of the British government and fledgling governments in the Colonies.
We have all been inducted into the belief, even the pseudo-religion, that it was great men with great ideas who birthed this nation. But the founding fathers' primary means of communication was not public speaking. It was, in fact, the written word that gave birth to America just as surely as the Revolutionary War did.
It is in this spirit that journalist Bruce Shapiro has compiled a text of important and sometimes famous examples of investigative reporting in America. The first story from 1798 was written by that old ne'er do well, newspaper publisher Benjamin Franklin.
The excerpts Shapiro has included in this compilation are heartbreaking, maddening, educational, revelatory, inspiring and enlightening. He includes a short bio of the reporters and background leading up to each article to give each a sense of time and place. He also tells a bit about each reporter's life to lend an air of humanity to the journalist who sometimes risked his or her life to expose the bitter truth.
Some famous stories from this century are included. The Nixon era exposés penned by Woodward, Bernstein, and Jack Anderson are here. The first story of the My Lai Massacre is here as is the first story from the New York Times describing the Pentagon Papers.
Today's readers who have lost half of their retirement funds or their homes will be infuriated to read a story written by Drew Pearson in 1931 called "The Man Who Stayed Too Long." It is a detailed, brutal description of what happens when a greedy millionaire, Andrew Mellon (of Carnegie-Mellon fame), gets a job working for the president and how the policies he advised helped lead to the Great Depression. Mellon manipulates the wheels of government to make himself and his friends richer while his fellow Americans stand in line for soup for ten years. It is a story that illustrates the cyclical insanity of Wall Street, for we are living through duplicate circumstances today.
One theme that runs through the book with frustrating regularity is that the powerful cannot be trusted. You can read Nellie Bly's 1887 account of what America did with its mentally ill in that century. In a story from 1954 Stetson Kennedy goes undercover as a Klansman and witnesses the torture and murder of a Black cab driver, killed for picking up a White woman as a fare. The excerpt from "No Birds Sing" by Rachel Carson will shock readers who have grown up believing that large corporations care about the environment. It details how the pesticide DDT nearly annihilated the bird population of several states until it was finally banned in 1972 after a decade long fight.
Another compelling read is the 44-page story of a mine blast in Illinois in 1947 written by John Bartlow Martin called "The Blast in Centralia No. 5: A Mine Disaster That No One Stopped." The story details the hard life of coal miners who, even with a union, couldn't get anyone in power to listen to their warnings before their mine exploded and killed 111 of them.
This collection is not an easy read. Its descriptions of the follies and foibles of man through the centuries might leave readers in despair. The only hopeful aspect is the knowledge that these stories actually changed the world a little. They exposed injustice, cruelty, callousness, brutality, mayhem, incompetence and ignorance. Readers can track major changes in American society all brought about by the power of the pen. Fans of history, writing, journalism and politics will enjoy this book.