You Can’t Cover America Sitting in Washington
Washington – Except for the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, our national media is so mesmerized and monopolized by the political war zone in Washington that you’d think nothing important ever happens in the rest of the country (except perhaps natural disasters). Unfortunately, that means the major media have largely missed one of the most fascinating and important human stories that has been rumbling through the belly of America these past few years and that I’ve tried to capture in my new PBS documentary, THE DEMOCRACY REBELLION.
That’s largely because I spent the better part of 26 years with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent based in Saigon, Cairo, Paris, and Moscow, reporting from more than 30 countries on four continents. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat on some of the seminal moments of the 20th Century – the Vietnam War, the U.S. Civil Rights movement, the Arab-Israeli powder keg of the Middle East, plus the Cold War and the summitry that led to East-West detente.
One essential lesson I learned from roaming the globe was that you can’t cover any country well – let alone understand it – if you sit in the capital. To understand the essence of a country and what drives or circumscribes its leaders, you have to escape the centrifugal pull the capital and move out across the country to feel the pulse and mood of the people and learn what undercurrents are at work and what changes the people demand or may take into their own hands.
So coming back to America, I brought that reporting habit with me, the habit of getting out of Washington and crisscrossing America, not to follow political candidates or to talk to more politicians, but to do just the opposite, to mix with other people, to question and listen to a broad variety of common voters and community leaders, trying to learn about their hopes, their fears, and their aggravations.
That led me to THE DEMOCRACY REBELLION. I wasn’t looking for any particular story. But working like a foreign correspondent in my own country, open to discovery, I stumbled upon a common theme in states as different as Florida and California, North Carolina and South Dakota, Connecticut and Washington, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
What I discovered was not only what we all know – that most Americans are fed up with Washington politicians and explosively disenchanted with what many see as a rigged political system – but what we didn’t know, that a surprising and growing number of Americans have concluded that since Washington has failed to act, they have to fix our broken political system themselves. And they have taken action.
That’s a surprising and impressive story. A new chapter of American history, echoing the Progressive Era that won women the right to vote, direct election of senators and a 1907 ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns, and harking back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that won black Americans access to mainstream institutions and the protected right to vote.
Once again, the cycle of reform and grassroots people power is on the move. That’s the story of THE DEMOCRACY REBELLION, being broadcast this month by PBS stations nationwide and now streaming on PBS.org. To find your local PBS showtime, click here: PBS airdates.