Some readers tell me that I devote too much time to the historical context of the American political/media crisis. They say I should focus more on its current manifestations, especially when there are so many to address. And these readers have a point.
However, I think that without the context -- and without understanding how the various U.S. political/media forces evolved over the past several decades -- much of what is happening today doesn't make sense, nor are the solutions readily apparent.
Only by analyzing how the country got into its current mess can there be any hope of figuring a way out. In that sense, this history is like the thread that the Greek hero Theseus unrolled as he made his way through the Minotaur's maze and then rewound the thread to guide himself out.
So, from my six-plus decades on this planet and my three-plus decades as a Washington-based journalist, here is my ground-level view of what has happened to the United States:
Generally speaking -- and with a number of glaring exceptions -- the post-World War II period was a time when the institutions of the Republic functioned along the lines of what we learned in our public school civics classes.
The federal government drew from the lessons of the Great Depression and the New Deal to improve the country's general welfare by creating conditions that helped expand the middle class.
After World War II, government programs helped veterans buy homes and get educated. Construction projects, like President Dwight Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System, brought the country together and increased productivity.
President John Kennedy's space program pushed the scientific frontiers, propelling the United States into the world lead in computer technology. President Lyndon Johnson enacted Medicare for senior citizens whose health needs were being ignored by for-profit insurance companies.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal courts also began to address the shameful history of racial segregation, as a violation of the U.S. Constitution and particularly the 14th Amendment's mandate for equal protection under the law. As the civil rights movement pressed the issue in the streets, the courts began striking down Jim Crow laws and other forms of discrimination.
In the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the U.S. press corps also functioned closer to its ideals of skepticism toward power. Correspondents covering the Vietnam War warned the nation of the folly, and the New York Times and other newspapers braved the wrath of President Richard Nixon by publishing the Pentagon Papers, with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Nixon's anger over the Pentagon Papers spilled into his political paranoia, the White House "plumbers" were soon planting bugs in Democratic headquarters at the Watergate. After Nixon's burglars were arrested and the President mounted a cover-up, the Washington Post led the way in defying White House power and exposing the scandal.
With Congress conducting serious Watergate investigations and federal prosecutors demanding Nixon's internal tapes of his own conspiracy, the Supreme Court again sided with the institutions of justice, rejecting Nixon's arguments of an imperial presidency. Nixon was forced to resign.
So, by the mid-1970s, it could be said that the institutions of the Republic were operating, more or less, as intended. There were real checks and balances. The rights of citizens, especially racial minorities and women, were finally being protected; the press was exposing wrongdoing; accountability was imposed on the Executive for constitutional and legal violations.
Of course, these institutions had been pushed by popular movements, millions of citizens demanding redress of longstanding grievances. There was also a vibrant "underground press" and other outlets for disseminating information when the mainstream media didn't. It was Dispatch News that exposed the My Lai massacre and Ramparts that revealed CIA penetration of student groups.
Yet, while this progress toward a more perfect union made undeniable headway in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the changes also bred resentment. In the South and in many white areas of the North.