News & Views from 465 California Street

Deconstructing Public Service

Clint Reilly
Jul
10
2007

Deconstructing the motives of those who serve the public interest is America’s favorite indoor sport. Consider the case of Senator John Kerry. As a young man, Kerry voluntarily enlisted in the Armed Forces and served admirably in Vietnam as a Swift Boat captain. Kerry was awarded for exemplary leadership in combat. Nevertheless, as a Presidential candidate, Kerry’s combat record was smeared and twisted until a sizeable percentage of Americans doubted his courage and deeds. A new phrase was created to describe the successful smear – swiftboating. In an era when voters are dissatisfied with government, it has become too easy to discredit honor and too difficult to confer praise where it is legitimately due.

The greatest challenge that public servants have today is communicating their good deeds. Voters are predisposed to believe negative information and reject positive facts. Politicians have always faced a wall of doubt. Today the National Inquirer would have run an expose on George Washington having chopped down the cherry tree before he had a chance to confess. How would “Honest Abe” fare on Fox News?
The inability of objective journalism to discredit lies and smears promulgated by partisan commentary or paid commercials is a crisis. As newspapers shrink, the printed word is increasingly overwhelmed by the superior fire power of television and paid propaganda. Even when reporters discredit false information, the news is a footnote to the paid media campaign.

This marginalization of public service is now an epidemic which has spread beyond the profession of politics to journalism, medicine, education and religion.

In a column lamenting the loss of friends and colleagues departing from the San Francisco Chronicle after a recent downsizing, Jon Carroll wrote, “Journalism is a noble profession. It can be used ignobly but so can anything. It’s one of the best things a person can do. It’s wonderful to be able to feed your family while doing it. And now there is a withering away, and I hate every minute of it.”

The problems journalists face today are more than just the result of financial turmoil in newspapers. Readers mistrust the news and attribute the same negatives to the press that the press attributes to politicians.

Journalism is only the latest profession to face a withering away.

Public service was once seen as the most socially beneficial way to spend one’s life. By foregoing the higher pay and perks of the private sector for less pay, public administrators, judges, elected officials were admired and accorded respect. Today, many voters are convinced that public servants have been corrupted by a vast array of hidden financial rewards. Never mind that, in fact, politics pays a fraction of an investment banker’s salary and real sacrifices are often made to serve. The sexual molestation scandal combined with the increasing secularization of society has taken a toll on Catholic clergy. Even the great priests find their reputations doubted. Doctors are under fire. Are they merchants of the dollar or caretakers of the sick? We claim to respect teachers but do we pay them as if we do? A culture of cynicism instinctively rejects the notion that any walk of life performs redemptive work that transforms society.

One by one, the socially indispensable professions are being taken to the woodshed.
Traditional values are being tested. The promise of making a socially beneficial contribution to society in exchange for lesser compensation is now replaced by the new promise: you can make a million dollars a year and save the world at Goldman Sachs.
In fact, journalists, public servants, doctors, teachers do play critical roles. They make financial and personal sacrifices to perform work which deeply benefits our country. But how long can we ask some of our most talented citizens to make irreplaceable contributions when their efforts are devalued and even belittled?

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