Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Hedrick Smith spoke at McTrib Wednesday afternoon as part of Medill's Crain lecture series to discuss his latest book, Who Stole the American Dream?.
Speaking to a mostly adult crowd (including University president Morton Schapiro), Smith, who has contributed to The New York Times and PBS, discussed his approach to illustrating life in America amid a changing economic and political landscape.
“We talk today in journalism about investigative journalism,” Smith said. “I don’t think a lot of people today think about books as investigative journalism.”
Smith brought this investigative journalism mentality to the research he did for his book, interviewing people all across the country about economic setbacks in their lives and carefully researching the historical impetus for these problems. The entire project stemmed from a lamentation of a less prosperous middle class, more partisan politics and greedier corporations as compared to the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
“Generally speaking, it was a time of higher highs and higher lows,” Smith said.
Smith elaborated on this point by citing the political power of the middle class in actions such as the environmental movement, the women's rights movement and the civil rights movement, describing the March on Washington as “one of the great days of my life." It was the labor movement, however, that Smith deemed was the most important of that era, adding that business leaders of the time were more concerned about employees and “there was an ethic there that said ‘share the wealth.’”
Smith saw this as one of the major factors that was different in America today and blamed many of the country's woes on the decline of unions and a change in the focus of CEOs to shareholders and stock prices.
Throughout his speech, Smith displayed deft historical knowledge, going so far as to mention exact dates from memory.
Smith concluded with thoughts on how to reverse this trend of changing focus, recommending we “get back to the frame of mind people had in the '60s and '70s."
Smith drew a comparison between the need to act today and the need to act during the civil rights movement.
“We as a people have to get to that Rosa Parks moment where we say ‘I’m not going to the back of the bus,’” Smith said. “We’re going to make America better.”