By Richard Reeves
The Associated Press, as usual, released last week its editors’ poll of the 10 top stories of the year. No. 1, with 54 first-place votes, was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The congressional passage of health care reform was second with 30 votes.
The list by the men and women who actually edit our news continued: (3) midterm elections; (4) U.S. economy; (5) Haiti earthquake; (6) tea party movement; (7) Chile mine rescue; (8) Iraq; (9) WikiLeaks; (10) Afghanistan.
All of those were obviously big stories. But hold the presses! It is not a list I would vote for. This year was a game-changer, and what we need is a game-changer list. On that kind of list, I would drop one-off sensations, beginning with the oil spill, the Haitian earthquake and the mine rescue. There will always be stories like those, and they are always illuminating of something, particularly the courage and stupidity of people in positions high and low. The world will continue to mine and drill for the resources that make life more secure and comfortable, even if the jobs that make that possible are tragedies waiting to happen. And Haiti? More proof that the rich honor the poor and endangered only until the next disaster makes headlines.
No. 1 on the game-changer list would be WikiLeaks. If we need final proof that the new information technologies change everything, WikiLeaks is that proof. The engine of democratic power—and totalitarian rule as well—is control of the flow of information to the people. For better or worse, leaders have been losing that power for at least the last three decades, beginning probably with the development of CNN in 1980.
That power, the power to shape public opinion and reaction to specific events, is gone. If there were another Pearl Harbor or another Holocaust, we would all learn about it at the same time, details to follow in minutes. We might not do anything about it, but we would know.
A subhead in this, the biggest story, would be that it takes only one person, unknown, a nobody, to bring down the old order. I’m not thinking of Julian Assange as much as I am Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army private who had access to the internal communications of governments around the world and showed us all. In the current New Republic, Noam Scheiber goes further than I would, writing that WikiLeaks means the end of large organizations (including governments) for the simple reason that only small groups, with cell-like structures, can communicate, negotiate and innovate without fear of broadcasting their data and intentions.
My second choice would end with a question mark: America rules? Or worse for us: America declines. From China to Pakistan, from Germany to Israel and Saudi Arabia politicians and military leaders, spies and merchants, are losing all compunction about defying what was briefly called the world’s only superpower. Part of that is that we hardly look super in Iraq and Afghanistan; we just look different.
For the rest of the list, I would link health care reform, the rise of the tea party and immigration. All fall under the umbrella of new demographics. Older people have something like a national medical care system, and they want to make sure they keep it—and, frankly, they’d prefer it if no one else got it, particularly people who speak with accents as many of their own parents and grandparents did. Ironically too these stories have another side we prefer to ignore: As our population grows older and our birthrates are low, we need these people, immigrants with the energy and skills of the young, to keep the country running at uniform first-world speeds.
Finally, I know it’s as boring as unwinnable wars, but climate change is happening. And the story is not being told well enough to make people believe. We are, of course, suffering from information overload, and we could keep talking about the weather and doing nothing about it until our eagle is cooked.
© 2010 UNIVERSAL UCLICK