Over the past few weeks, two important media stories have grabbed the headlines to significant fanfare. And as media members, we should be proud of the amazing work going on around us, now spotlighted in the public eye like little else before.
In the first story, a treasure trove of 11.9 million documents known as the Pandora Papers began to go public on Oct. 3. They detail the intricate hide-and-seek tax schemes powerful rulers, prelates and politicians use to hide and build wealth at the expense of the people they serve. Just days later, Nobel Prizes were awarded on Oct. 8 to two intrepid journalist dissidents, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia.
Yes, important developments. Spectacular. But in the end, of what consequence? Behold, let the wet rag behind Qwoted’s 1921 Underwood typewriter have his say. If not, I’ll say it anyway.
I contend that in a day and age when a despot can skyjack a plane with a journalist aboard and get away with it, none of this high-profile Pandora heroism will amount to much. At least in the short run. In Russia, for example, it’s pretty simple: Vladimir Putin, an ex-KGB baddie, treats journalists like gulag fodder. His underlings like to poison people whose voices do not sing in harmony with his.
And he has just announced as I write this–surprise, surprise–that the Nobel Prize will offer Muratov no legal cover whatsoever. No wonder he’s buddies with that skyjacking, ass-kicking dictator in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. If you went to court for a speeding ticket, you suffered more consequences than he did.
As for the Pandora Papers, behold the swarm of troubles they’ve brought to light. Media troubles, that is.
Pandora Papers, Pentagon Papers, powerless paper
I salute the Pandora Papers team (and our two Nobel winners) for living out a high mission “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” to quote pioneering investigative journalist I.F. Stone. They have provided some affirmation for those victimized by greed, deception, and political corruption.
Annoyingly, there’s a self-congratulatory tone in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists crowing that the Pandora Papers are “the largest investigation in journalism history, [which] exposes a shadow financial system that benefits the world’s most rich and powerful.”
True, no doubt. But is “the largest” the most influential? Size, my dears, isn’t everything.
I think about another “P,” the Pentagon Papers. The 7,000-odd pages in 47 volumes conclusively proved that President Lyndon B. Johnson lied to the American people about the U.S. debacle in Vietnam.
It was 1971, and The New York Times earned a Pulitzer Prize for its work on reporting the contents. The Washington Post got involved as well, which spurred two young journalists–Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein–to expose the Watergate scandal that eventually toppled President Richard Nixon.
The U.S. suffered 58,220 casualties in the Vietnam War. And Bob Woodward is still at work exposing America’s misleading leaders. Last year, he revealed that former President Donald Trump lied to the American people about the grave threat posed by COVID-19. Woodward had Trump on the record acknowledging what he really knew and then chose to ignore, connected the dots to prove Trump had deliberately downplayed/dismissed the pandemic, and printed that proof in his book “Rage.”
In 2020, 375,000 Americans died of COVID-19: more than six times the number in Vietnam. But instead of bearing any consequences for this grave deception, Trump enjoyed sky-high approval ratings throughout 2020, especially among white evangelicals: in excess of 80 percent.
Oh, well. At least Woodward tried.
Power of the press versus powerlessness of the oppressed
Pandora news flash: King Abdullah II of Jordan created a network of offshore companies to build a $100 million overseas property empire. Really? Now there’s a story as old as the feudal lords of Ye Olde Medieval Europe. Last time I checked, King Abdullah II was … a king. His spin machine is applying a full-court press to call the papers “distorted.” And Jordanians confused about whether this news is fake, or isn’t, are likely to shrug and hit whatever Amman’s version of Target is to stock up on underwear and Coke.
So a Catholic Church drowning in sex abuse scandals, a decades-long record of stealing the innocence of young boys and covering it up, will repent for allowing secret trusts working on its behalf to pour nearly $300 million into American rental properties? Hmm. People will still jam the pews on Sunday and Pope Francis at some point on a dull Thursday afternoon will make vague proclamations about “shame.” If that much. It’s the oldest fact in the book, Bible or otherwise, that if the church sold off even a percentage of its wealth, it could make a huge dent towards remediating the grave global issues its leaders contend they care so much about.
Will the world tune out Pandora? Or tune into something else?
Given all this we must ask ourselves very challenging questions: Will much of the Pandora Papers be deemed ineffectual? Irrelevant? Just another virtual newsprint pile buried under “Squid Game” spoiler alerts and dispatches on Dog the Bounty Hunter’s search for Brian Laundrie?
God willing, I pray not. All that hard work cannot, must not, go to waste. Some course correction, even the most skeptical of us can agree, will result. The mighty may be held accountable at some point.
But will they pay?
Let’s get this straight: The copious tax haven schemes uncovered in the papers may stink to high heaven. But they aren’t necessarily against the law in many cases. Immoral, unethical, isn’t necessarily illegal. Ask any cunning accountant or unscrupulous lawyer like the late Ed Genson, who got R. Kelly off the hook during his first go-round of accusations that he turned young girls into sex slaves.
The lack of definitive, across-the-board lawbreaking marks a huge flaw in the Pandora Papers’ central thrust. Thus many of the already exposed documents come within a politician’s pubic hair of being moot. You can’t “afflict the comfortable” if they’re so comfortably ensconced in power, you’ll need a nuclear weapon to breach the walls of that Caribbean tax haven compound.
Plus, there isn’t enough outrage. What’s needed–and here I see Pandora’s blind spot potentially identified–are issues that an overwhelming number of people care about. Laugh all you want, but “Free Britney” fits the bill. It too is a tale of millions corrupted and an exploitative “ruler” with a history of abuse to boot. It captured the attention of teeny boppers and New York Times reporters alike.
Word to the wise reporter: The reader (and you) are the story, too
At the same time as the Nobel Prizes and Pandora Papers, we learned of another scandal based on leaked, damning documents. But this one’s become a cause célèbre. We now have a pretty firm sense that Facebook–where so many of us waste our time–puts profits ahead of people, and consciously converts political discord and teenage body envy on Instagram into a lusty profit. We always suspected: Now we definitively know. So says the insider paperwork offered by former employee Frances Haugen, who further captivated the public as a whistleblower, a lone David against Zuck-liath. So many of us can identify with her. We want to be her.
Now, compare that to what many people find off-putting (though I think it unfair). With Pandora, we have a team of many faceless journalists digging and digging to deliver variations on all-too-familiar themes–Gasp! World leaders are … corrupt! Who knew?!?!–and then reminding us it’s “the largest investigation in journalism history” (insert patting one’s own back here).
Truly, what captures the public imagination are the smug villains we know–a familiar cast of characters–and the outrage in watching the people we love (or ourselves) being abused, manipulated, deceived. We don’t even know what most tax shelters look like. A Quonset hut? But we can easily see ourselves under the thumb of a nasty parent.
So listen up journalists. Yes, it’s the stories you report. And I wouldn’t worry whether people applaud or ignore you for the brave work you do. Keep doing it. The world needs it.
Just be aware that whether you like it or not, your grand ambition belongs to a larger narrative. A drama unto itself. And that there are reasons people embrace some big stories and ignore others. Most denizens of apple-pie America don’t know Jordan from Jamaica, and couldn’t name a single city there. (Hell, I had to look up “Ammad.”) They never heard of Abdullah II until now. An overwhelming majority will conclude: “What the hell can anyone do about it? Don’t kings get to build all the castles they want? Who cares? Really?”
I know, I know, I know. But do we get it? Who wants to be told what to care about when the connections are so remote: politically, geographically and personally?
But the faceless evil of Facebook? The lying Zuck-liath? Captive Britney? Her layabout, devious, greedy dad? Those characters and their larger dramas stoke emotions. They strike a chord.
And maybe, just maybe, they turn solid reporting into solidified change, with everyday readers helping to lead the way. May the Pandora Papers do the same, before exhausted, gloom-weary, distracted readers reseal the lid for good.