Friday, January 30, 2004
No polls, no projections, no second guesses
Last Tuesday night I tuned into a local television station just as Howard Dean was making his New Hampshire concession/victory (they all sounded the same) speech. Every few sentences, the news anchor would voice-over the candidate, to comment on the tone, content and likely effect of the speech almost before the candidate's words were spoken. I marveled at this extraordinary on-the-spot reporting. How can our reporters compete with these contestants, erreporters, that know what the candidate is thinking even before the candidate has the thought? Except for an occasional adjective that sneaks into a news story, Mosquito news reporters do not express opinions, never mind no polls, no predictions, and no second-guesses. How will we ever sell subscriptions?
Fortunately our mission is not to compete with those covering the national or even state campaigns; our mission is to cover local and regional elections and issues that receive little attention from the big guys. Of course, if a national candidate visits Carlisle, we will be there with our notebooks and cameras.
In the election year ahead we have two objectives: to report political events as they occur and to provide adequate information on candidates and issues to enable citizens to make informed decisions at the polls. In the former, our reporting will be driven by the events and, consequently, the number of inches of print devoted to each candidate, party or issue will reflect the amount of political activity that occurs. If one side holds ten public newsworthy events and the other two, our reporting will reflect that ratio. On the other hand, in pursuing our mission to present all candidates and viewpoints, any interviews and background stories initiated by us will provide relatively equal coverage to all sides. At least that is our intention.
In addition to our reporting, the political picture unfolding on our pages will also include carefully labeled paid advertisements, press releases (headlines in italics), and letters to the editor. We do not edit these, nor check the accuracy of any facts or opinions they present.
Of course, we all love a good story. So let's hope that our local candidates challenge each other and the community with relevant, informative, colorful, exciting even emotional and entertaining events and discussions in the best American campaign tradition, as they, not our reporters, will be making the news.
Somewhere recently I ran across the arresting statement that one need only meet a dozen people from a country to recognize the fallacy of national stereotypes. Yet almost everyone can appreciate this joke: heaven on earth would have German mechanics, French cooks, Italian lovers, English police, and the Swiss running everything; hell on earth would have German police, French mechanics, Swiss lovers, English cooks, and the Italians running everything. At a glance the joke seems to be the worst sort of stereotyping, but on reflection one sees that it is amusing because it calls on a variety of stereotypes, all of which are easily seen to be fallacious by anyone who knows even a handful of Europeans.
Still, within limits, this kind of generalizing is a useful way to start to make sense of the complicated, divergent, confusing world around us — a world that nowadays encompasses not just the people we meet and talk to, as it once did, but the entire planet, whose travails and calamities are brought instantly and constantly to our homes by radio, television and the Internet. We cannot possibly meet and get to know the people whose tragedies and grievances are daily paraded before us, and we have no choice but to fall back on generalizations about them. This is not necessarily a bad thing — generalizations give us a starting place, a first approximation, for thinking about other people. But in any particular instance, what is generally right may be wrong. People are too complex to be fit into neat pigeonholes. It is easy to lose sight of this fact.
Beside the error of basing one's views on stereotypes, there is the difficulty that nearly all of our knowledge of other people is secondhand. It is very easy to be misled, sometimes by those we are seeking to understand, not infrequently by our own unperceived prejudices, and often by the biases of those providing the information we use to gain understanding. I think of the truly excellent article in last week's Mosquito by Cecile Sandwen about her brother Mike McGarry, an Army reservist serving in Iraq. Based on news reports, one imagines that the vast majority of Iraqis hate their American occupiers, that life for a soldier there is terrible, either blazingly hot or bitterly cold, and all the time dominated by fear of ambush, that no American can trust an Iraqi and vice versa, that morale among the soldiers is low and sinking lower each day.
But this modest, honorable and decent young man, who is on the spot in what is said to be the most hostile part of Iraq, paints quite a different picture. He says it was hot last summer, but "you really do get used to it." The havoc the insurgents have created is not his dominant impression of the region; instead it is the sadness of a nation that, with its oil wealth, could have been (and still may be) a flourishing culture but is "an area that time and politics have passed by. women on donkeys that could have been right out of the Bible." He knows there is hostility: "There must be since people are trying to kill us," but he finds that most people are friendly and, indeed, on the day Saddam was captured he found himself "unexpectedly enveloped in hugs."
Our understanding of the world about us is always incomplete and imperfect, so we do the best we can with the information at hand. We do best when we bear in mind how tenuous our understanding is.
© 2004 The