A century ago, muckraking journalism was in its heyday, Progressive Era religious activists were organizing movements for social justice and a series of legislative initiatives—from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913—imposed tight constraints on the power of plutocrats.
These days you would need only to attach an iPhone to one of the tentacles of Udo Keppler’s monopolistic octopus to perfectly represent the retrograde ethos of our new Gilded Age.
Thin coverage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—a colossal trade agreement that’s part of the Obama Administration’s pivot toward East Asia—is a case in point. Despite concerns about the intentions of the corporate interests that are shaping the pact, most legacy media, including the New York Times, frame the story in a favorable light. Criticism of the developing trade deal has come mainly from secular, left-leaning online outlets like Truthdig, Huffington Post and Boing Boing—a situation that more closely resembles the partisan-press era of the late 19th century than the investigative spirit that animated mainstream news organizations in the decades before and after the First World War.
And while Pope Francis has received both praise and criticism for his attention to global economic inequality, the social justice faction in contemporary Roman Catholicism lacks the vigor it had during the time of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. Tellingly, the TPP has received no analysis in Commonweal, America or Justice Magazine and only a passing mention in National Catholic Reporter.
Even Sojourners, which supposedly carries the torch of progressive Protestantism, has devoted only scant coverage to a corporatist project that surely would have had the magazine’s Social Gospel forebears pounding on their pulpits.
Among the most prominent left-leaning religious news media in the U.S., only Tikkun seems to be consistently pressing the case against the TPP.
An Episcopal priest, writing to the Seattle Times to praise the newspaper’s critique of the TPP, noted that his denomination had recently passed a resolution advocating social justice principles in international trade. Therein lie so many stories to tell: The flame of a fading prophetic movement flickering in a rapidly shrinking mainline church. A trans-national corporate initiative, conducted mainly in secret, with a onetime community organizer-turned President as it primary champion. And journalistic institutions like the New York Times, once essential in drawing our attention to such trends and ironies, leaving the chronicling of history and the raking of muck to others.