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Why Our Failing Infrastructure Isn't News

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Message Stephen Fournier

When the ceiling of a mine or a bridge over the Mississippi or a Brooklyn steam pipe or a New Orleans dike fails catstrophically, that's news. But when information comes to light warning of such a failure before it happens, that's not only not news, it's fodder for the censors.

The bridge failure, the dike failure, the mine failure, and the pipe failure were all anticipated by people in the know, but the deficiencies in these structures were uniformly ignored by our trusted news-mongers. It's not that the commercial media don't want you to know that the facilities you pay taxes to maintain are unsafe and decrepit. That the infrastructure is deficient goes without saying. And so nobody says it. Why trouble people with things they can't do anything about? To keep public and workplace facilities maintained properly is beyond our capacity as a nation. Costs too much.

Consider the cost of restoring the country's bridges: $190 billion over 20 years, according to National Public Radio. The reporter referred to that amount as "staggering. " You've never heard NPR use "staggering" to describe the cost of our latest military adventures: five times as much in only five years. So $9 billion a year to build something is staggering, but $90 billion a year to destroy something isn't. If Walter Cronkite were dead, he'd be spinning in his grave.

Keeping us misinformed is not the principal purpose of the censors, whose motives are purely commercial. Our news reports come from people who are competing for an audience. Between reports, the news-monger presents advertising to this audience, and the size of the audience determines how many dollars flow from the advertiser to the newsman.

Since it’s impossible to report everything about everything, someone must decide what facts to report and what facts to withhold or ignore. There are no formal rules or standards for reporters of news, and so the need to attract an audience can function as the sole determinant of what gets presented as news and what doesn’t.

Audiences have a short attention span, and they don’t like to engage in any deep thinking, and so the coverage of events must be abbreviated and simplified. Complicated stuff has to be edited out. Deficiencies in the infrastructure are considered complicated, even though they describe actual dangers. Compare the risks of terrorism, so much simpler to report and understand because they don't involve any actual facts.

Audiences also prefer the familiar, and so well-known people and places are to be covered at length. To cover well-known people and places, the reporter must have access to them, and the giver of access gets to dictate what the reporter passes on to us. Facts that reflect unfavorably on the giver of access are to be edited out. Deficiencies in the infrastructure are just such facts.

Audiences want to be entertained, and so the concentration must be on the visual, with lots of pictures and vivid description of spectacular events, with musical accompaniment, if possible. Events and conditions that provide no drama, such as the results of a bridge inspection or a mine walk-through, are to be edited out.

Audiences don’t like to be criticized or offended. Information that reflects unfavorably on the audience or that causes them undue worry or pain must be edited out. They're especially sensitive to charges that they might have a safer world if they were willing to pay for it.

Audiences don’t mind if the advertisers are presented in an unflattering light, but the advertisers do, and so information that makes advertisers look bad must be edited out. Audiences also don’t mind if the news-mongers are exposed as dispensers of unreliable information, but the news-mongers do, and so any information that detracts from the credibility of the newsman has to be edited out. Information about defects in the infrastructure would seem to pass these tests, but it gets edited out anyway.

Audiences have opinions, and they don’t like to have their opinions challenged by facts or contrary opinion. To guard against this, the news media measure their audience’s opinions endlessly, allowing the editors (or forcing them) to omit facts and opinions that conflict with the prevailing public view. If people want to think they're safe at work or on a bridge, they should be allowed to think that.

Many of us remember chuckling over the plight of the Russians, who used to read newspapers that were named “Truth” but that printed anything but. The poor Commie masses knew they weren’t getting the straight story, but they read on anyway. False news must be better than none, we opined incredulously. We were right about that, and we're paying a price for our preference and our consequent ignorance. Hard to believe the world's masses have entrusted people like us to rule. Not that we'd know if they felt otherwise.

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Hartford, Connecticut, lawyer, grandfather, Air Force veteran. Author/publisher, Current Invective www.currentinvective.com
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