A champion of the dispossessed leaves a hole at The Times

First Frank Rich left The New Times for a new gig at New York magazine.  I consider him the master of casting light on cultural interconnections, at giving new perspectives on the place of politics in the weird melange called American society.

Then last week, Bob Herbert announced that he, too, was retiring from The Times, another liberal voice vanishing from its oped pages.  Among my friends and acquaintances, the rap on Herbert has been that at times he could get stuck on the same note of moral outrage. But at his best, he was a powerful voice for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for the abused and the ignored.

In Herbert’s final column, “Losing our way,” he returned to his most universal themes, the erosion of this country’s commitment to all, its rising oligarchy, its its bankrupting embrace of its role as the world’s policeman.  The column began like this:

So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Maybe some people stopped listening to Bob Herbert because he was too serious; he wrote things people didn’t want to hear or felt powerless to fix. Maybe he lacked the wit or irony of more clever colleagues such as Maureen Dowd, who cultivate that carefully molded sense of not caring too much.  But maybe, too, he was right: That the world needs a little more moral outrage in the voices of its pundits.

That Herbert provided right to the end.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline.

And Herbert, as ever, provided the evidence to back up his assertions. His final tidbit: News from the Economic Policy Institute that the richest 10 percent of Americans received every bit — all 100 percent — of income growth in the seven years, 2000-2007,  before the bottom fell out of the economy.  See any connection?

He also notes, by the way, that in 2009,  the top 5 percent claimed just shy of two-thirds of all the nation’s wealth. Who is kidding whom about availability of the American Dream to all?

So what’s next at The New York Times?  I’m waiting to see whether new columnists will replace two men who could at least get me mad,  whether, seven days a week, there remains enough inside its pages for me to pay for paper and not just its new web pay wall.

It was Frank Rich to whom I turned to each Sunday morning as soon as the newspaper arrived. But it was Herbert who reminded me that politics is much more than a game.  It sustains or wrecks lives, a lot more of the latter in Washington’s current budget-cutting frenzy.

Dubbing him “The People’s Journalist,” Pearl Korn of the Huffington Post wrote, “No one will replace Bob Herbert at the Times, and that is our great loss, for his kind of journalism is a rarity.”

I can only hope she is wrong. I still believe in journalism’s ability to touch a nerve, to get people to act. But to do so, it has to keep trying, to show a side of the world Americans would just as happily not see — whether that be growing poverty at home or the institutional moral erosion of a country perpetually at war.

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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