In 1859, then President James Buchanan called the rise in hostility between the North and the South “an incurable disease in the public mind”. Historian Thomas Flemming took that to mean that the Civil War was becoming inevitable even though it may not have been necessary to bring about the end of slavery in this country. We’ll never know the answer to that, but in the meantime, diseases of the public mind are not a thing of the past. In order to truly understand a problem that needs attention, one has to understand the nature of the situation and the causes. Events need to be put in context. Are emotional statements that call us to action representative of the true nature of the situation or not? What is normal? And what are the exceptions to normal that won’t be fixed unless we do what some are suggesting? What do we need to know to accurately diagnose a problem and know what solutions might be appropriate or desirable?
We have several factors today that may not be obvious, but keep us from fully understanding problems or situations in a ways that could lead to the best solutions. Most of us get our information from the public news media – TV, radio, newspapers, or the internet. The first problem is that whatever is normal is not “news”. The things that make headlines today are the exceptions to what is normal. Consequently, they don’t provide a balanced view of reality in terms of what is really going on – what is “normal” for an area or a group of people. But they are often portrayed as that – they are extrapolated and assumed to include a whole area or class of people. What happened in Charleston does not represent the attitude or beliefs of most white southerners. The response of the people in Charleston should have demonstrated that. The response to the tragedy was encouraging and heartening. I believe in Capital Punishment and the guy who held the gun should be punished. But the majority of the white population in Charleston responded to the Black people’s forgiving attitude in a way that should bring people together. Could that have been true in Ferguson, MO as well? We may never know. The response was riots, looting, and burning. And the general national conversation became focused on racism. My experience in life is that if a person is hostile to begin with, it may be difficult to keep him from being hostile. But if someone is friendly, I can make him hostile by walking up and hitting him in the face. The viral disease in the public mind is taking a relatively small, but grievous hostility and turning it into a condemnation of a general population. The result is that the suggestions, responses and proposed solutions don’t really fit the situation.
In defense of the press, there are some things to consider:
- Normal is not news: for events to be “newsworthy” they need to be exceptions to what is normal. The front pages of the newspapers and the lead stories on the television news reflect this.
- Both the newspapers and TV have time and space constraints. Half hour TV news programs have not got much time to devote to a single news item. Hence the “infamous” ten second sound bite. I had a course once where an x-CNN news reporter gave us this advice on getting our main message across in a TV interview. “Whatever the question, answer it with whatever your desired message is. And make sure you can get it said in one or two sentences.” If one says too much in discussing a question, a part of the answer can be taken out of context and used to imply something not intended. And it still can be said to be “factual” reporting:. The newspapers aren’t much better, they have space requirements that lead to the printed equivalent of the ten second sound bite. NBC news several years ago decided to implement “in-depth coverage” on their evening news program. I was enthused until I realized it meant more 10 second sound bytes from each side of the issue. It was balanced, but not particularly informative. There was no rational for people’s opinions, and no in-depth information provided.
- The competitive pressures on the news media today also make it difficult to be factual and objective. Local papers all seem to have problems covering costs today. The TV news used to be 3 National networks, now there are many more. And then there is the internet, some of which may have some restrictions to accurately report things and some not. In any event, news is not particularly balanced and informative. Sensationalism sells papers and attracts viewers. Most national new organizations will deny that they sensationalize news. But the first cousin of sensationalism is promoting controversy, but it is more subtle. The 10 second sound bite from different sides of an issue without any rational, or detailed information on the problem certainly can promote controversy. A rational discussion would usually find areas of common agreement, and provide enough objective information about the situation for the viewer to make up his or her mind about what they think. As an example, the Iran agreement has been in the news a lot lately with controversial opinion quotes from both sides. But there has been almost no information about what the agreement actually says in the newspapers that I read or on the national TV news. Time and space are a problem here, because one can’t get all the information in a single paragraph or in 5 minutes of news coverage. But the most inflammable controversial remarks have been reported as lead stories and front page news.
- The last difficulty that the press has is not having reporters with the education and training needed to understand the issues being reported. Journalism schools today teach people how to write, but not much concerning the things they write about. Most of our national issues of the day are scientific or economic. And most of the reporters have little or no education in these areas. To report intelligently and to do “in-depth” reporting requires some knowledge of the subject area.
I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. The news media is not likely to change, so “we the people” need to do our on research and not get caught up in making generalizations of things that are reported as “news”. Otherwise we are likely to make some serious mistakes. All policemen and all southerners are not racially motivated – some no doubt are but most are not. All illegals did not come across the Rio Grande carrying drugs. A few no doubt did, but a lot came into the country legally and are doing legitimate work. Being illegal is not necessarily being undesirable. If we changed the rules to reduce the number of illegals to only those who are undesirable, enforcement would likely be a lot easier. And most people of the Muslim religion are not terrorist. A few are. But it would probably be helpful, if we could enlist the aid of the majority that aren’t to control those that are. What we are doing – based on what I see circulated on the internet is condemning the many for the sins of a few. There are many more subjects that I could mention, but responses based on the generalization of small events – no matter how bad those events may be – are not usually going to help us solve problems. They could make it worse. Unfounded or uneducated biased public opinion can be an “incurable disease in the public mind”.