The Last Picture Show

It began some time ago, perhaps a quarter-century ago, as a slow, quiet separation -- a drifting-apart that, fueled by the forces of capitalism and technology, accelerated into a wide gulf. Now, there may very well be two different planets: on one, most of us, and on the other, somewhere in Oz, the ones who make and deliver the "news."

On the first planet, we go about our daily lives, worrying whether our job will still be there tomorrow, whether our kids are safe at school, whether our HMO will pay for the treatment, how much money we should put away for old age. We read a bedtime story to our daughter, challenge our aesthetics with a new art film or concert, thrill our parents with a surprise visit, grieve over a lost love and take heart in the resilience of our strength.

Meanwhile, all around us, there is this din, this constant barrage of news reports. Blaring from our televisions, crackling from the radios, screaming from the morning paper's headlines, exploding on Web pages. Soap-operatic reports about JonBenet's parents; the Dow Jones' nosedives; politicians and their peccadilloes; the media and its mergers; Bill and Monica.

And so the chasm widens between them and us. We find ourselves looking at each other and saying, "Can you believe it?" "Did you hear?" "How can they?" In 1998, the disconnection -- between the American people and the powers that be -- was just about complete. The things that mattered in Soulard or Sunset Hills, in Dallas or Detroit, seemed a world apart from what mattered in the inner sanctums of politics, business and media.

It's gotten so bad, they can't hear us anymore. More likely, they don't care to hear. Each time the pollsters ask us about something, we tell them what we want: Get big money out of politics! Rein in the insurance companies! Fix the schools! Build more public transportation! Stop the attack ads! Raise the minimum wage! Don't impeach Bill! And each time, we find that we don't matter. It's no surprise that in the national elections this November, more than 100 million of us didn't even bother to vote. And still, their world dominates, and there is no escaping it.

Locally, we've seen the billion-dollar Page Avenue project rammed down our collective throat and the $2.6 billion Lambert expansion slog ahead while MidAmerica Airport sits empty 20 minutes from downtown. Kiel Opera House stays in mothballs; the Arena awaits the wrecking ball. Forces from the other world are at work.

Some of the key culprits in this disconnect are the top dogs of the media. Instead of questioning authority, they amplify it; instead of telling us stories of our daily lives, they tell us stories about the rich and famous; instead of using their power to set the agenda for public discussion, they hand it over to the political and business elite.

And so, as we look back at 1998, let's keep in mind what mattered and what didn't. And let's relive the stories that hit us where we live rather than the stories that simply titillated us. Where we can, let's be amused, not saddened, by the Shakespearean dramas unfolding in that other world.

-- Safir Ahmed

The following look back at selected news from 1998 has been culled from the pages of The Riverfront Times. It was written by Safir Ahmed, Jeannette Batz, Richard Byrne, Thomas Crone, Melinda Roth, C.D. Stelzer and D.J. Wilson.

TWO DOWN, SIX TO GO: The jury is still out on whether St. Louis 2004 is just another well-intentioned do-gooder group that will initiate some nice community-based programs or whether it is the mother of all civic efforts that it claims to be. Two years into its eight-year run, the group spent most of 1998 meeting, group-thinking, planning, commiserating, studying and strategizing about all the wonderful ways in which the St. Louis region can improve the quality of life for every man, woman and child. Funded by some of the area's major corporations and the Danforth Foundation, and led by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and former city official and PR flack JoAnne LaSala, the group plodded onward this year with its "action plans." Late in the year, 2004 funded a $100,000 study by out-of-town consultants on the needs of the arts community in St. Louis. The conclusion? Don't reopen the Kiel Opera House downtown but fund a new theater and invest more in the Grand Center district. This, of course, fueled speculation that the study was rigged to bail out the Kiel Center Partners, who had promised to reopen the Opera House in exchange for $35 million in city subsidies for the new Kiel Center. Oh, it just so happens that the same corporate interests involved in Kiel Center funded the St. Louis 2004 study. (SA)

UNCHARTED WATERS: In what is perhaps one of the most low-key but high-minded efforts ever begun in St. Louis, a committee of nine men, including Mayor Clarence Harmon and his three predecessors -- Jim Conway, Vince Schoemehl and Freeman Bosley Jr. -- met quietly for most of 1998, working to bring efficiency and decisiveness to city government by changing the city's antiquated charter. The long-term goals include ridding the city of its patronage-heavy "county" offices (treasurer, license collector, recorder of deeds, comptroller, sheriff) and consolidating more power under the mayor's office. Led by Bert Walker, a Stifel Nicolaus executive, and George Wendel, a political-science prof at St. Louis University, the committee had enough support by year's end to introduce legislation in Jefferson City to allow the city to change its own charter. That was the good news. The bad news, though not insurmountable, was that most of the "county" officeholders, along with Aldermanic President Francis Slay, are opposed to the major changes. It's going to be a long, slow haul with plenty of opposition from protectionist types, but it's a brave effort and ought to be supported. (SA)

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