“Let’s cut to the chase,” says Robert Scheer, “there is no real objectivity in journalism, and there shouldn’t be. If you pretend you’re a dragnet cop when you’re reporting, you know, just give me the facts, you show your stupidity, your mindlessness. I think the best thing that’s ever been said on the subject of objectivity was from the great Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti who said, ‘Keep an open mind but not so open that your brains fall out.’”
Scheer’s Bronx accent is made all the more musical by his early immersion into the pre-hippie culture of 1960s San Francisco, where he was the bearded beatnik editor in chief of the New Left’s flagship publication, Ramparts magazine. (Castro himself thought Scheer was pinko enough to personally hand him the diaries of Che Guevara for publication in Ramparts.) Scheer’s glasses magnify his eyes to heroic proportions, and one might not have a hard time imagining that he is capable of seeing through all the complacency that has our participatory democracy stalled so much of the time, like he’s Superman seeing through a mountain.
Reading him, particularly when you’re pissed off about all the political bullshit that complicates our personal joy and demands the bipartisan labeling of our compassions, you might discover that his abilities are even more heroic than that — that he is perhaps even capable of seeing through Superman himself, past Clark Kent, past Smallville, past Jor-El, through both Warner Brothers, all the way into the most repulsive sectors of the plastics industry where tiny Chinese hands are toiling away through 16-hour work days to produce miniature Happy Meal figurines able to leap the FDA food pyramid in a single bound and to indoctrinate prepubescent American chubsters into the consumerism class where progressive politics and liberal concerns for fair labor laws are typically loath to tread.
Hell, even more impressive than that, he was the journalist who, in 1976, was able to see the lust in Jimmy Carter’s heart when everybody else just saw peanuts. Now you know who he is.
My first exposure to the man was at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books a few years back, when he was still employed by the host paper, before he would be axed after 30 years of service for reasons murky at best and cowardly at least. From the back of a very crowded auditorium, I watched him use three words — blow and job and bullshit — to aptly describe the pistil and stamen and life-giving manure of modern politics; and also to lose his temper and actually raise his voice to Christopher “Hic” Hitchens, whose excruciatingly precise incoherence over his support of the freshly launched invasion of Iraq had the overwhelming majority of the bleeding-heart eggheads in the audience wishing, first, that the overwhelming majority of them didn’t throw like girls and, second, that rotten fruit had been permitted into the ballroom. Like Nietzsche using exclamation points in his philosophical writings to shout down the most idiotic dictums of Christianity, Scheer’s outrage spoke, by contrary example, to the lack of real passion in public debate over some of the more weighty issues facing the republic.
“The most depressing thing I’ve learned in this whole journalism business is that there really isn’t much courage there,” he tells me during a visit to the downtown offices of Truthdig.com, the news and information Web site he now presides over. “Journalism is a career, and a journalist, particularly a mainstream journalist, will only report something if it doesn’t jeopardize his job. These are people who are unwilling to risk a slight kink in their career curve — I’m not talking about having their fingernails pulled out or their testicles crushed, like it is for journalists in other parts of the world. For instance, I assume that there must be one person at the Los Angeles Times who thinks that it was wrong to push my column out and I don’t know of anybody [from the Times] who’s publicly said that.”
He laughed, a gallows laugh, amused by the lack of anything funny.
“Journalists are very brave when they sail out of the building and confront other people,” he continues, “but they’re little church mice in their own building. They fail to let the reader in on the story that they know best: how does the mass media function, who’s calling the shots, how does public information get formed? The Fourth Estate has been hobbled — they don’t cover themselves. Take the Tribune Company,” he says. “They’re basically operating in violation of the law because Congress didn’t pass the legislation letting them have the kind of consolidation that they wanted, so they got these waivers from the FCC and that’s how they keep a television station and a newspaper in the same market. They need the Bush administration to get these waivers. Does anybody at the paper investigate that connection? Are they going soft on it?”
He pauses to smile and to look out the window. The view is spectacular, particularly because it faces away from the L.A. Times building, barely a block away.
“The quote at the top of Truthdig is a quote from A.J. Liebling: ‘Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.’ Well, now I own one.”
A pinko, at last, in the pink.