News as a Public Good

I know I harp a lot on the deficiencies of contemporary media. That’s because I worry a lot about the consequences of those deficiencies.

I was reminded of the importance of good journalism the other day, during a discussion in my Media and Public Policy class. The reading assignment was an article by Paul Starr, a highly respected scholar, titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption).” Starr began by describing news as a “public good,” noting that newspapers have “been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm system,” and–in response to those who point to the internet as a sufficient replacement–pointed out that a significant proportion of actual news found on the internet originates with and is aggregated from newspaper reporting.

Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it is subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny.

Starr worries that more and more of American life will “occur in the shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”

That last sentence really struck home–in more ways than one. Not only is it true generally, it is especially true that we don’t know what we don’t know about local and state government.

When I was in City Hall, in the late 1970s, there were four full-time reporters covering Indianapolis government–and they had all been there long enough to acquire what we call institutional memory. They knew what questions to ask, and who was responsible for what. Today, the Star has two opinion columnists who write about local governance issues, augmented by occasional reports by actual reporters. If any reporter has an exclusive city “beat,” it isn’t apparent from the coverage.

My class considered a number of City initiatives that received far too little attention, from the  50 year Parking Meter contract, to the Broad Ripple Garage financing, to the “recycling” contract with Covanta.  These projects were reported, but without the detail and context that would have permitted citizens to understand and evaluate them.

The same superficiality characterizes coverage of the Governor’s office. Reporting on the Governor’s decision not to apply for an 80 million dollar grant to support preschools was a perfect example: supporters of that decision claimed–among other things– that “the research” shows preschool interventions aren’t valuable; critics countered that this was a deliberate mischaracterization. If reporters investigated the research to see who was telling the truth, I missed it.

As far as reporting on the Statehouse, we finally did learn about Eric Turner–but only after his behavior was so egregious it couldn’t be ignored. More circumspect misconduct goes unreported.

And of course, we don’t know what we don’t know.

We don’t need paper newspapers, but we desperately need journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.D. Ford, Mike Delph and the Social Contract

At a recent candidate forum, J.D. Ford–who is running against Mike Delph–made what should have been one of those “duh, yeah, we learned that in high school civics” observations: when businesses open their doors to the public, that constitutes an obligation to serve all members of that public.

There is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between business and government. The government (which collects taxes from everyone in its jurisdiction, no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation) uses those tax dollars to provide services. Those services are an essential infrastructure for the American businesses that must ship goods over publicly-financed roads, depend upon police and fire departments for safety, and (in some cities, at least) public transportation to bring workers and customers to their premises.

As Ford noted, business that want to discriminate– who want to pick and choose which members of the public they will serve–are violating that social contract. They want the services that are supported by the tax dollars of all segments of the public, but they don’t want to live up to their end of the bargain.

Where Ford (and I) see fundamental fairness, Mike Delph (surprise, surprise!) sees religious intolerance.

“I was saddened to hear him express such intolerance for those of us that hold deep religious conviction,” Delph told The Star. “Religious liberty is a fundamental American ideal.”

Let’s call this the bull*** that it is.

If your religious beliefs preclude you from doing business with gays, or Jews, or blacks, then don’t open a retail establishment. Don’t enter into a contract knowing that you will not honor its terms.

Religious liberty allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. You have the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church, and the government cannot interfere. But when you use religious beliefs–no matter how sincere–to disadvantage people who are entitled to expect equal treatment, when you use those beliefs as an excuse not to uphold your end of the social contract, that’s a bridge too far.

Mike Delph wants a government that favors (certain) religious beliefs, and gives adherents of (certain) religions a “pass” when they don’t follow the rules that apply to all of us.

I want Mike Delph out of Indiana government.

 

 

Cognitive Dissonence

In the past 48 hours, I’ve run across columns, Facebook posts and broadcast pundits all blaming government for not doing enough–not keeping the Ebola virus from American shores, not deporting twelve million “illegal aliens,” and not doing enough to encourage marriage, harness the nation’s energy supplies, or create jobs.

In fact, pretty much everything that’s wrong with America–at least in the eyes of these critics–is a result of government shirking its responsibilities. (Of course, they also add that it’s all Obama’s fault that government failed to do what it was supposed to).

The accusation is that government had a job and it failed to do that job.

Interestingly, these finger-pointers tend to be the very same people who want to “starve government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub.” They are also the same people who are always insisting that government “get out of the way” of business (while regulating women’s uteri), that it stop supporting “takers” with our frayed social safety net programs (while continuing to subsidize those “makers” who will be creating jobs any time now), and that government stop extorting our hard-earned money through taxation (while demanding more and more of the services those taxes support).

There’s terminology that describes what happens when people hold fast to incompatible beliefs: cognitive dissonance.

Or hypocrisy.

 

There’s Knowledge and Then There’s Wisdom…

A friend recently shared one of Andrew Sullivan’s “Quotes of the Day”–this one by Isaiah Berlin, in “A Message to the 21st Century.”

 Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen…..

So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”

  As I wrote my friend, this is a far more eloquent expression of my conviction that modernity requires an ability to live with ambiguity—an ability to weigh and measure, to moderate, to recognize (as Learned Hand once wrote) that the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right.
Civility and intellectual modesty–those hallmarks of maturity– will take the human race much farther than shrill certainty and rigid ideology.  As Emerson famously noted, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

 

What’s More Dangerous Than Ebola??

Question: What’s more dangerous than Ebola? Answer: How about ignorance, racism, hysteria…Not to mention that most of us face an immensely greater chance of dying from flu, guns, automobiles, obesity and other causes about which we don’t panic and against which we don’t even take reasonable precautions.

Ebola is one of those “gifts that keep on giving” for our sensation-loving news media. Like missing blonds in Aruba, media outlets can milk it for endless speculation and sensationalism, and best of all, terrifying the public requires virtually no actual journalism.

I’ve been increasingly annoyed by the hypocrisy and disproportionate coverage, but what really set me off was a recent Huffington Post compilation of crazy. Some of the hysterical pronouncements came from the “usual subjects”–Faux News, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, etc. (Donald Trump parades his idiocy at every available opportunity; he tweeted that Americans who go overseas to fight the outbreak should not be allowed to come back.)–but there were others.

I don’t know who Morgan Brittany is, but she evidently suggested that American government officials had “orchestrated” the whole thing.

“Maybe the current administration needs this to happen,” she wondered, “so martial law can be declared, guns can be seized and the populace can be controlled.”

For sure, Morgan. The fact that Obama hasn’t confiscated those guns yet is just part of his clever, nefarious plan to keep you off balance….

Someone named Cyril Broderick went her one better:

Broderick published an article in a Liberian newspaper, titled “Ebola, AIDS Manufactured By Western Pharmaceuticals, US DoD?” Between references to conspiracy theorist websites and “The Hot Zone,” a popular book about Ebola from the 1990s, Broderick implies the virus is a result of bioterrorism experiments carried out by the U.S. government in Africa.

And of course, Indiana embarrassment Todd Rokita had to chime in, claiming that “the real Ebola threat lies with Latin American immigrant children.” Well, Todd, glad to see you are maintaining your own immunity to accurate information.

There were many more, one crazier than the next.

We have an epidemic on our hands, all right, but it isn’t Ebola.