From Britain, I watched the Watergate scandal unfold in the 70s, captivated by the courage of reporters Woodward and Bernstein and the commitment to justice demonstrated by their employers at The Washington Post. By comparison, mainstream American journalism today seems weak and tepid.
President Nixon was revealed as a crook and scoundrel by the power and persistence of the American press. It was a lesson for the world in the exercise of civil liberties and the power of the US Constitution. Today, the successors of this proud tradition fail to live up to this example, and in so doing, betray us all.
The Bush administration gets a pretty free ride, even from the so-called "liberal press." Now it's usually foreign correspondents who ask probing questions, and to find out what's really going on in America, I go to the BBC and The Independent for centrist reporting, The Guardian for a left-wing view, and The Daily Telegraph for a right-wing perspective.
The distance traveled by American reporters from seekers of truth to purveyors of pabulum was measured for me a few months ago by remarks on NPR from a correspondent covering President Bush's visit to London last year. This journalist was marveling that his British counterparts were unrelenting in questioning their government leaders. He was particularly surprised by the attacks from the British press on Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"It's as if they're in opposition to the government!" he said, clearly bemused by a press corps that pushed its politicians hard, fast, and unremittingly.
With President Bush's State of the Union message still fresh in our minds, it's worth looking at how it was received across the pond. In America, the Democrats politely disagreed, going through the motions of opposition. When a politician really got passionate, as Howard Dean did in Iowa, he was ridiculed from coast to coast. In this country it's becoming bad form, even unpatriotic, to express opposing thoughts forcefully.
So step with me inside the pages of The Independent for an alternative take on the state of the American union. Under the headline "As the election battle begins, how does his first term add up?" an editorial provided a statistical snapshot of things missing or glossed over in President Bush's carefully scripted rhetoric. Here's a selection. The full list can be viewed at http://news.independent. co.uk/world/americas/ story.jsp?story=482947.
501: Number of American servicemen to die in Iraq from the beginning of the war -- so far.
0: Number of coffins of dead soldiers returning home from Iraq that President Bush has allowed to be photographed.
0: Number of funerals or memorials that President Bush has attended for soldiers killed in Iraq.
100: Number of fundraisers attended by Bush or Vice-President Dick Cheney in 2003.
10 million: Estimated number of people worldwide who took to the streets in opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
9.2: Average number of American soldiers wounded in Iraq each day since the invasion in March last year.
1.6: Average number of American soldiers killed in Iraq per day since hostilities began.
36%: Increase in the number of desertions from the US army since 1999.
10,000: Approximate number of Iraqi civilians killed since the beginning of the conflict.
$100 billion: Estimated cost of the war in Iraq to Americans by the end of 2003.
$127 billion: Amount of US budget surplus in the year that Bush became President in 2001.
$374 billion: Amount of US budget deficit in 2003.
$1.58 billion: Average amount by which the US national debt increases each day.
$23,920: Amount of each American's share of the national debt as of 19 January 2004.
$42,000: Average savings members of Bush's cabinet are expected to enjoy this year as a result in the cuts in capital gains and dividends taxes.
$42,228: Median household income in the US in 2001.
$10.9 million: Average wealth of the members of Bush's original cabinet.
88%: Percentage of American citizens who will save less than $100 on their 2006 federal taxes as a result of 2003 cuts in capital gains and dividends taxes.
$116,000: Amount Vice-President Cheney is expected to save each year in taxes.
2.4 million: Number of Americans who have lost their jobs during the three years of the Bush administration.
43.6 million: Number of Americans without health insurance in 2002.
$300 million: Amount cut from the federal program that provides subsidies to poor families to heat their homes.
58 million: Number of acres of public lands Bush has opened to road building, logging and drilling.
200: Number of public health and environmental laws Bush has attempted to downgrade or weaken.
1st: Rank of the US worldwide in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per capita.
More on these last three later . . .