Sunday, 20 July 2003

Why the American press shouldn't behave like Britain's

One common refrain, particularly from the left of late*, is that our press isn’t adversarial enough when dealing with politicians; they look to the British press, and in particular the BBC (as that is the only example sizeable numbers of Americans have been exposed to), as an exemplar of the adversarial style they want to see emulated.

Those who advocate this style, however, may want to consider Jeff Jarvis’s damning collection of links that suggest that the Beeb’s quest for sensationalism and ratings—if not an ideological bias—led it to claim that the Blair government had “sexed up” reports on Iraq’s weapons capabilities before the war. At the center of the controversy is a dead weapons inspector, David Kelly, and one of the BBC’s wartime correspondents in Baghdad, Andrew Gilligan, whose performance in a pathetic cloak-and-dagger display I belittled during the war. Now, some portions of the American media are hardly better—the reliance on barely-sourced, anonymous information from deep background has become a staple of reporting in “flagship” newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times, perhaps due to every reporter thinking he’s going to become a star like Bob Woodward—but outside the most partisan papers (the occasional crusades of the Raines-era NYT, the Washington Times and the New York Post spring to mind), no American outlets have matched the Beeb’s propensity for grinding its ideological axe.

Moreover, as Peter Mandelson (no stranger to the harsh spotlight of Fleet Street and the Beeb) points out, the British media have contributed to a decline in public discourse in that country:

The viciousness that characterises the relationship between the media and politicians is turning people off politics and corroding our democracy. Everything in Britain is conducted in an overly adversarial way, from our courts to our Parliament, our industrial relations and our select committees. It is good theatre, but does it produce good outcomes? In this case, patently not.

The pervasive cynicism of the BBC and its fellow British media almost certainly have an effect on public perceptions of democracy. As a professional cynic myself, I can’t help but believe part of that attitude was formed as a result of my political socialization at the hands of the Beeb and ITN (the only other television news provider in pre-satellite-TV Britain). A healthy skepticism about the veracity of a government’s claims is good for democracy, but the consistent and corrosive cynicism embodied in the reporting on the motives of everyone and anyone in government or the public eye by the British media seems detrimental to that country’s long-term future.

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry has more on the blame game surrounding Kelly’s death.

* I suspect that if the current administration came from the left, these calls would be coming from the right; no Democrat I can remember was complaining about the press treating Bill Clinton with kid gloves during the Whitewater/Vince Foster/travel office/Monicagate presidency-long megascandal.

Link via InstaPundit.

Death of a thousand cuts

James Joyner helpfully points out that the U.S. case for war in Iraq, as made in the State of the Union address—including the famous “sixteen words,” which until recently I thought was a mid-eighties Molly Ringwald vehicle—had very little to do with whether Saddam Hussein had obtained fissible materials from Africa.

In other news, the case for American secession from the British Empire really wasn’t about the fact that King George III had imposed a French-style civil code on the people of Upper Canada (the place now known as Québec). Nevertheless, that shocking claim made it into the Declaration of Independence:

FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rules into these Colonies:

I guess that means we should start heaping dirt on Thomas Jefferson’s reputation. Oh, wait… never mind.

Safe and sound in Ann Arbor

By some miracle, I’ve made it safe and sound to Ann Arbor. I spent Friday night with my friend Eric Taylor and some other wild and crazy guys in Bloomington, Ind., and most of Saturday night over at Dean’s blog party with all sorts of interesting folks in the western Detroit suburbs. I think I can safely report that a good time was had by all involved in both occassions.

I’m also relieved to see that Brock has been picking up the slack for me while I’ve been away (what timing!). More posting from me will appear in a little while…

By the way, if you are reading this in Ann Arbor, and you have a line on a room that’s available for the next four weeks, drop me an email at And, if you’ve replied to my email about the Bazaar, I’ll try to get back to you in the next day or so.

Good cause ... bad name

There will be a meeting Wednesday of Amber’s Army, a group founded after the June 25 death of Amber Cox-Cody, who was left for eight hours in a day-care van in the Memphis summer. This was the fourth such death in Memphis since 1996.

Now I don’t want to sound callous. There’s a real problem here. But “Amber’s Army”? I can’t think of any less appropriate use of the military metaphor. At least with the “War on Drugs”, there are men with guns out there kicking down doors, so it’s at least it’s something like a war. I’m envisioning armed men in fatigues outside day care centers, inspecting vans to make sure there aren’t any kids left inside.

I don’t have any good ideas for solving the problem of incompetent day care workers letting kids die in hot vehicles in the summer. And don’t know anything about the particulars of any of the cases, of why the kid was going to day care instead of being cared for, at home, by a family member. But the liberal in me suspects that welfare reform is partly to blame. I wonder whether it just might be a little more cost effective to take the money the state is spending on providing day care for poor children, and just pay one parent to stay at home and take care of the kids.

The amateur economist in me recognizes that the incentives need to be done right. For example, it should be the same payment, no matter how many kids you have in your care. And it shouldn’t matter whether it’s the mother or the father who stays home to care for the kids. And maybe you should only get paid to stay home and take care of the first two children. After that, you’re on your own.

I’m not a child welfare expert, but seems to me that pre-school children are almost always better off at home. And any system that provides perverse incentives to take them out of the home is broken.

Now back to sounding callous again. That logo of the crying teddy bear makes me want to retch. And if the Commercial Appeal is going to advertise the URL, they should make sure it works.