(Full disclosure: Given my position as a founder and current senior fellow at the institution that gives the award, AdTI, one of the people who gets to help choose the annual recipient is me.)
Once upon a time, journalists, including commentators, weren't talking-pointed stooges of the Party of Bush or the Party of Clinton. Instead, they were, as H.L. Mencken put it, "ceaselessly querulous and bellicose," especially towards power and privilege.
As well -- and perhaps more important -- they had causes, issues, ideas: What The San Diego Union's Ed Fike used to call a "bon crusade." John Fund and his 1980s promotion of term limits at The Wall Street Journal comes to mind, as do the 1920s and '30s muckrakers and social reformers.
Nowadays, though, the art of crusade journalism is largely dead -- not only on the right, but, curiously, on the out-of-power left. Only the occasional riff from radio host Al Franken or the pages of "The American Conservative" relieves the homogenized, corporatized drone.
Into this fifth-estate malaise, in 2003-2004, stepped a man as gentle in personality as he is cutting mentally, a Harvard economist with an aw-shucks Midwestern sensibility: the host of CNN's flagship evening financial news show, Lou Dobbs.
Every night, Dobbs holds the noses of corporate America into the mess its' left on the economic rug through the massive overseas outsourcing of jobs, the alienation of physical capital, or the giveaway, theft, and destruction of American intellectual property. Dobbs lists the leading job exporters; names corporate executives; and, when they have the guts, has a tough but always polite interview with them.
Every night, Mr. Dobbs exposes the indifference of government officials to the same phenomenon. Often it's through the inability to establish a rational border and free (but monitored) flow of labor, the failure of American education to give the workforce the skills it needs, or the periodic tough talk sans follow-through actions of the Bush Administration on protecting intellectual property overseas.
One can disagree with Dobbs on a particular issue -- as AdTI does on some matters of immigration. The point is, in discussing the policies and persons that are feeding into the under-recompensed exporting of our country, Dobbs has what Tocqueville himself referred to as America's "relentless spirit of improvement."
It infuriates much of the elite. A friend who advises the Bush administration refers to Dobbs as a "Luddite... Pat Buchanan with a smile," while Marc Fawzi, a member of the left's Linux Lobby backed, not coincidentally, by IBM, calls him, simply, "Fat Bastard."
On a more serious note, my former colleague Dan Henninger at The Wall Street Journal has taken Dobbs to task for reportorial-philosophical inconsistency. Fair enough, but note that when a reporter tacks out on a new story, he's not writing a philosophical treatise. He's poking around to describe what's going on, not trying to theologize. This is bottom-up journalism: Facts first; sorting it out next; theories later.
This kind of exploration was going on at the Journal in the 1970s, when Jude Wanniski rediscovered classical economics and incentives. The Journal at the time, by the way, and Wanniski, in his book "The Way the World Works," poked fun at the kind of tax-rate discrimination in favor of "business" income or deductions, and physical capital, and against human beings, that they now cheerlead for today. Dobbs, by contrast, is skeptical of these former supply-siders for ignoring the implications of America's rising relative rates of DNA taxation.
Likewise, Jim Glassman demurs about some of Dobbs's predictions of trouble if things aren't set right. Yes, readers: That's Jim "Dow 36,0000" Glassman.
They all miss the point. Intellectually and journalistically, Lou Dobbs is as sharp and tough as Bob Novak, Seymour Hersch, or Mike Wallace. In personal manner, he's as gentle as Oprah -- the Jimmy Stewart of journalists. What a winning combination.
No wonder Dobbs, despite the sneer of many competitors, has enjoyed a growing audience. Truly, market share is the best revenge.
Dobbs is not, contrary to the traditional image of demagogue populists labelled protectionists, an anti-intellectual. On the contrary. He seems, instead, to have read Adam Smith -- including portions that many self-styled fans of the free market have not. Such as the long passages in which Smith frets about the tendency of corporations to form price-fixing cartels, or cabals that lobby the government for special favors.
Thus, in fact, Dobbs is, in the tradition of a Jacques Rueff, Lewis Lehrman, or John Mueller, a neo-free-trader. That is to say, a free trader who was mugged by reality -- or, anyway, at the very least, knows reality when he sees it.
Interestingly, in fact, Dobb's work intuitively coincides with, and occasionally has led him to uncover, a simultaneous trend noted by my AdTI colleague, Ken Brown: the giveaway of American technology.
In some cases, such as America's coddling of Communist China, this takes the form of outright piracy or theft. In others, such as the "open source" assault on existing intellectual property in software and, in fact, on the very concept of property, it's a movement not simply being tolerated, but actively sponsored by leading "American" technology companies.
It is, in a way, a whole second front in the assault on the American economy. It's interesting to watch Dobbs interview software executives and hardware makers on the virtues of outsourcing -- the better to "spread our products" with, Mr. Dobbs, and make sure America is at the center of real wealth creation.
But what if, as in the case of open source, the purpose is to undermine existing property, and make sure that future software is given away? In that case, the export of jobs at the same time, and decay of America's innate ability to innovate, take on an even more threatening aspect.
Great journalists, no less than great political leaders, are ahead of, but also a product of, their time. They inter-react. Viewed from this perspective, there are at least three reasons why America is indeed fortunate to have Lou Dobbs at this hour.
1. America needs Americanism. Sometimes, as C.S. Lewis observed, the very thing we're shouting about is something we really haven't thought through very carefully. For all the talk of patriotism in America in the last few years, one wonders if the real spirit of patriotism -- "love your country always; support your government when it deserves it," to paraphrase Sam Clemens -- isn't in fact a bit weaker.
Against the chest-thumping that holds sway with some on the right, and the mere cynical anti-Americanism popular with some of the left, Dobbs asserts a vision of the national interest and the nation itself that seems deeper than the former, more genuine than the latter. This is precious at a time when slogan-shouting has replaced my-country tough-love.
2. The Enron mentality isn't gone. The heart of the Enron, Worldcomm, and other scandals wasn't sloppy accounting. Bad bookkeeping was the symptom; and Congress has fixed the symptom with draconian punishments and sworn statements.
No: the real corruption at these firms and others was one of spirt. A culture of "whatever's necessary" grew up, and worse, was nurtured with a contemptuous indifference towards all the human beings -- shareholders, employees, customers -- that, in fact, are the foundation, and the beating pulse, of any corporate enterprise.
That ethos of indifference to people is alive and well today at many American companies, in think tanks, and in the halls of government. One journalist alone can't fix it, but Dobbs spotlights problem right on our television sets every night for the watching.
3. The left needs the right and the right needs the left. Dobbs's reports on the excesses of corporate America are especially valuable right now precisely because of his purported conservative, i.e. free-market, bias. Like a leftist denouncing political correctness, Dobbs executes a self-critical function that the intellectual right, in recent years, has been sorely lacking (as the left was in the 1970s).
The amazing thing is that so few on the right and the left realize that apart from one another, they will lose battle after battle in the coming years to the bland, business-as-usual center. With a coalition joining John Sweeney with Lou Dobbs (on some issues), or George Soros with Jack Kemp (on others) -- there is little that could not be done. Without it, there is little that can be done.
THE ABOVE represents the politics and philosophy and impact of Mr. Dobbs's bon crusade. But these are external to Mr. Dobbs, who is neither a politician nor a politicized journalist; an effect, not an intention, of his excellent reporting.
Dobbs is exposing for the sake of exposing; uncovering because it's good to uncover. Let the chips fall.
"The fact," Robert Frost wrote, "is the sweetest dream that labor knows." Dobbs has a nose for what facts are important in the global economy, and uncomfortable for certain aristos. It's too bad there aren't more of him, but America is lucky there's at least one.
(Gregory Fossedal is an independent investment consultant on ideopolitical risk, and a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. He is the author of "The Democratic Imperative" and "Direct Democracy in Switzerland." Neither AdTI nor UPI is responsible for the opinions expressed, which are entirely his own.)
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