Make Mine Medium Rare
That's it!! In sheer disgust, I threw my shoe at a
television set spouting endless drivel about important
matters in New Orleans, Houston, Lake George, Bali, Iraq
and on and on, ad nauseum. Unfortunately, the shoe missed
its target and smashed the CD player instead. My
unhappiness sank to deep, dark depression.
As the terrible tragedy of New Orleans was in its
initial hours of unfolding, I watched a CNN newsman obsess
with a continuing string of questions designed to make the
federal government look bad. "Isn't it true," the reporter
demanded, "that the federal government was lax in
responding?" When the respondent declined to agree, the
reporter persisted. After four or five variations of the
question failed to produce the desired result, the reporter
gave up all pretense of objectivity and stated what to him
was obvious: The federal government in general — and
FEMA in particular — clearly had failed in its
obligation to protect the citizens of New Orleans against
all manner of natural and man-made disasters, no matter how
enormous they might be. How he could fairly assign blame
just a few hours after the levees broke is beyond me, but
'never in doubt, sometimes right' struck me as an apt
characterization of this video journalism. Not that CNN was
an outlier — virtually all the American networks
followed suit. It was the usual: Find individuals to blame
and hammer them for gross incompetence.
The search for Louisiana scapegoats continued unabated
for weeks. Anyone who could possibly have been blamed for
New Orleans — and even some who were removed entirely
from the action — was cited. And, of course, the
irony of it all: The mayor of New Orleans received
pan-network TV castigation for failing to evacuate all the
citizens of the city, while shortly thereafter his
counterpart in Houston was chided for evacuating too
Fortunately, cooler heads soon prevailed and our
esteemed members of Congress quickly convened a tribunal to
execute on camera all the officials involved in the New
Orleans tragedy, thus moving most of the carnage off the
networks and onto C-Span. And you thought witch hunts were
a thing of the past!
The favored Washington sport these days is the hunt
for the scapegoat. A somewhat elusive animal, it is great
fun to catch but tough meat to swallow. I thought we had
enough of this blood sport with 9/11, WMD, the war in Iraq,
Merck and the FDA, and on and on. But I find that, like the
deer population, scapegoats are overbreeding, and so the
hunt continues. When you turn on the television, you can
view any number of reality shows, but the two most
ubiquitous are bound to be Survivor and Scapegoat.
Instead of scapegoats, we should be looking for
solutions: how to prevent another 9/11, improve our
national security, avoid making premature conclusions about
foreign intelligence, make drugs safer and strengthen our
emergency responses. And most importantly, when looking at
preventive actions, we need to factor in the negative
impact of trying to reduce risks to zero.
Our nation was founded on taking risks. We have always
lived in a risky environment, and no amount of careful
planning can eliminate all negative outcomes. In fact, as
we have become a more risk-averse society, I suspect we are
slowly but methodically sapping Americans of their creative
energy. Fearfulness does not breed spunk. Of course we
don't want to lose astronauts, but it distresses me to hear
how many people think the only possible response to
potential disasters is to give up human space exploration.
None of us wants a repeat of 9/11, but in implementing
hyperstringent airport security, we have significantly
reduced the productivity of travelers who must arrive much
earlier at the airport than before, take off their shoes
and belts, surrender their nail clippers and more in order
to provide only nominally better security. Yes, the direct
costs of airport security are enormous, but I'll wager the
indirect costs measured in the lost productivity of
travelers are even greater.
Worse yet, by insisting we find a scapegoat for every
untoward event, we are creating powerful disincentives to
real leadership. Who wants to serve a role in government
when every undesirable outcome is likely to end in a
televised hunt for scapegoats among public officials? No
one, I think, in his or her right mind.
So that's it — no more blaming blood sport for
me. I haven't succeeded in smashing my TV, but I am opting
out. Next time you happen to be in the nation's capital and
find yourself in a swank restaurant full of the chattering
classes, order me a takeout dish of video-grilled scapegoat
— my last taste of this tasteless trend — and
make that medium rare.
From now on, I want to focus on solutions.
William R. Brody is president
of The Johns Hopkins University.