This is why we need journalists

106233_9376As a democracy, it is essential that we have newspapers, journalists and especially investigative reporters. How else are we going to hold our elected officials and governments accountable?

Besides, as York Times media critic David Carr has pointed out, if it weren’t for the Fourth Estate, what would the talking heads on Fox, MSNBC and talk radio have to yammer about?

But there’s another more compelling reason we need an independent and aggressive media. Our society depends on the reporting work of these watchdogs to dig out the bones and the skeletons that hide in our midst.

If it weren’t for their work, the general public wouldn’t know about Watergate or Iran-Contra or a host of other acts of skullduggery.  And we also wouldn’t know that 40 years after TV reporter Geraldo Rivera broke the news of scandalous conditions at the Willowbrook State School on Long Island, abusive  conditions still exist at state-run institutions in New York.

Must we have scandal to get reform?

Rivera’s shocking video footage of life inside the state institution for people with intellectual disabilities led to the eventual closure of the facility. At the time, New York Gov. Hugh Carey began a long overdue reform of the institutional system. And he appointed a commission and gave it strong authority to monitor the treatment of people living in institutions.

But that commission has since lost much of its power and its zeal for investigations. It tends now to play down allegations of abuse and its funding has been slashed to the point where it cannot be an effective overseer.

So now we have a situation where it’s hard to fire workers who abuse and neglect the vulnerable citizens who live in New York institutions. Worker unions have intervened in many cases and employees accused of such offenses as biting, hitting and leaving bleeding residents naked on the floor have been able to keep their jobs.

No finger-pointing allowed

New York is not unique on this front. The Austin American-Statesman’s Andrea Ball has reported faithfully on abusive conditions inside Texas institutions.

In Texas, at least, you can get fired for assaulting a resident at a state institution. Nevertheless, efforts to crack down on abuse have produced few results. Even the installation of surveillance cameras has done little to curb mistreatment.

As I mentioned in the beginning, stories like these remind us of why we need newspapers who hire investigative reporters.  They also remind us of why we need elected leaders who have the guts to insist on decency and humanity, even when they are opposed by powerful unions and other strong forces.

I’d hate to think the only way we can ensure civil rights for the disabled is for some terrible tragedy to occur in a state-run institution — or for someone like Geraldo Rivera to sneak a camera into a restricted area so the rest of us can see how disabled people are suffering .