The system works, sort of

As a journalism instructor, I love the Bob McDonnell story.

It's the start of a 16-week semester. My students are going to spend 15 weeks learning how to do journalism. During Week 1, I want to make sure they understand why: Why is journalism important?

Thus we begin with a discussion of popular sovereignty, more familiarly known, thanks to John Lennon, as power to the people. I'm not sure my students have much faith in this concept. As if voting, petitioning, letter writing or protesting do any good in a society where the only power is the power to purchase!

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So I hit them with my "Power to the People" PowerPoint presentation. I show them the photos of Civil Rights marchers getting attacked by police dogs and blasted by fire hoses, then show President Johnson signing the Civil Rights bill into law.

I show the photos of Vietnamese napalm victims and of mass anti-war demonstrations, then tell how 1972 presidential campaign rhetoric turned from winning the war to ending it.

I show how the great political cartoonist Herblock traced the footprints of the Watergate buggers to the White House, thus prophesying how "a third-rate burglary" would destroy the Nixon presidency two years later.

And I show how a Washington Post report on filth and neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center led to Senate hearings, the firing of the commander of the hospital and of the Secretary of the Army, and apologies from President Bush.

Moral: When a sufficient number of people get sufficiently riled up to raise their voices about some awful thing that is happening in the world, the powers that be are forced to listen, and maybe even act. But as Nat Hentoff pointed out in "Tell the Truth and Run," an inspiring film biography of journalist George Seldes, before we can do anything about any of the world's troubles, we have to know about them. That's where the press comes in.

This semester, I've added a new slide to my popular sovereignty presentation. This one's about the corruption case against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife. On it, I itemize the gifts bestowed on the governor and his family by dietary supplements peddler Jonnie Williams: the rides in Lear jets and Ferraris, the Cape Cod golf getaway, the $5000 cognac, the $6500 Rolex, the $15,000 catering job for the governor's daughter's wedding, the $20,000 shopping spree for the governor's wife.

McDonnell admits to accepting Williams' largesse; regrets it, even. But that, his lawyers argue, doesn't make him guilty of a crime.

In the commonwealth of Virginia, amazingly, an officeholder can rake in all the booty he's offered as long as he doesn't do favors in exchange. Thus, McDonnell could walk.

If he does, I wouldn't blame my students for becoming even more alienated from politics than they already are. Corruption isn't just business as usual — it's perfectly legal.

But I would like them to take away a more hopeful message: The fact that the McDonnells were even charged means there are still people on the lookout for political corruption. Sometimes, law enforcement smells the stench and the press reports what investigators have found. Sometimes the press picks up the scent and then law enforcement gets on the case.

Either way, the system whereby the press and law enforcement act as twin watchdogs of the powerful still works, at least occasionally. It's up to citizens to demand that it work better.

In this case, that means pressing for tighter restrictions on officeholders accepting gifts in states like Virginia. That way, whatever the outcome of the McDonnell trial, the people will have won.

All of which would add up to a neat little demonstration of this popular sovereignty thing: The people elect an executive, an independent judiciary investigates the executive, an independent press covers the investigation and trial, an informed populace demands reform, and reform, mirabile dictu, occurs.

That's why I love the Bob McDonnell story.

Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.