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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 7, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 10
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

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 soon.

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.


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