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Journalist Hedrick Smith on taking back the "American Dream"

Last week, the Reynolds School of Journalism brought Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Hedrick Smith to UNR to talk to students about his work, the future of journalism and to discuss his new book, Who Stole the American Dream?  To learn more, we sent Reno Public Radio’s Esther Ciammachilli to visit with Smith to talk about his experience covering the most important social movements of the last half century.

Journalist Hedrick Smith has a story to tell.

It’s the story of two Americas. Smith says, with the demise of the middle class, there is a growing rift between the rich and the poor.  In his new book Who Stole the American Dream, he credits that rift to the unfettered relationship between money and politics in the United States. 

This week marks the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its infamous slogan “We are the 99%.” This mantra became synonymous with income inequality that Smith says has squashed the American dream.  Even though the protest eventually dissipated, Smith says it sparked a lasting conversation.

“Well Occupy was successful in that it imbedded in the American political psyche, and the American Political dialogue and the American political debate the idea of the 99% and the 1%; a great inequality of income in this country which has built up over the last three decades. And it awakened the press. We in the media weren't covering that story very well until Occupy came along.”

The Movement began on September 17, 2011, a group of activists set up camp in lower Manhattan in an effort to show their newfound contempt and distrust for Wall Street as an institution.  It was the most notable protest in modern American history.  They were protesting, as Smith likes to say, the stolen American dream.  But the Occupy Movement began to slow when winter hit, and by the spring of 2012, had fizzled out.  So what killed the Occupy Movement?

“They weren't well organized. In any successful movement - the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the labor movement, the environmental movement back in the 50s and 60s, 70s and onward - they all had clear leaders, they had clear platforms and they could negotiate with the president, or with Congress or the mayor of the city or whoever, the powers that be and you could actually get an outcome. In the end, Birmingham was desegregated because Martin Luther King and Andrew Young could  sit down with the mayor and the business leaders of the community.  But who was going to sit down for Occupy? So the lesson here is have a clear mission as they did, have then very clear objectives and have a very clear organization so that you can also raise funds and get people from around the country to support you. They [Occupy] didn't do that.”

Smith can speak so authoritatively on what makes a successful movement because he’s seen effective protests in his five decades of reporting experience. In that time he’s covered Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the Middle East.  From 1971-1974, Smith was the Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the U.S.S.R and another as a member of the team who uncovered the Pentagon Papers.

So what advice does a fifty plus year veteran of journalism have for future media professionals?

“Curiosity is your greatest advantage. If you're curious about things, if you constantly ask questions - tough questions, why questions, how questions, not just what and who and when questions - you're going to have an interesting experience and you're going to do a good job, because if you're curious and you're learning things, than your readers, or your listeners, or your Tweeters are going to learn things from you. If you're pretty static, if you get to know a subject and say well I really know everything there is to know, or everything that is important to know about this subject, you're going to stop growing.  Your curiosity's going to get turned off and so are your readers and your audience.”

He says the mistake of many journalists today is that instead of connecting the dots for their audiences, they are merely throwing the dots at them.  If journalists start effectively connecting the information they report on to the issues at hand, they will create a more informed public capable of restoring the American dream, which Smith says is a shared responsibility.

“We have to understand that 'we the people' have got to bring it back for ourselves.  We cannot count on the politicians, we cannot count on Washington, we cannot count even sometimes on our state governors or state Legislatures.  In the eras of American history, the 50s, 60s, 70s, and the progressive era back at the turn of the century 1900...people exercised power. People pushed government to respond to what we the people want. We've got to take that lesson to heart and we've got to do that again and that's the single most important thing. The American government today in Washington cannot solve any major issues because it's gridlock. And it's gridlock because the powers that be, the financial powers have got it the way they want it. They don't want change. The present situation favors people with money, big corporations, multinationals.  If we want change, we have to affect it ourselves.”

Smith says, the single most important lesson he has to offer future generations of reporters and citizens alike is to play an active role in affecting change.

Esther Ciammachilli is a former part-time broadcaster at KUNR Public Radio.
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