Acceptable Risks

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart understands his audience.

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The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart understands his audience.

After the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Stewart said Americans would look at our racism and gun culture and do “jack shit.”  

Beyond repeated and ritual hand-wringing, too many Americans see shootings as transient events that grab the attention of the news media until the next sensation.  

It’s not that we’re uniquely callous. For most Americans, shootings — woundings and deaths — are an acceptable risk. That’s the key: acceptable risk.

Until the news media confront us with this reality and rub our faces in it, they’re failing their watchdog responsibility.

Roughly 30,000 Americans are shot to death annually; more than twice that number survive gunshot wounds.

Most of the deaths are suicides. Few are multiple murders. However, multiple shootings — deaths and injuries — are getting greater news coverage.

They’re acceptable risks of living in 21st-century America. 

News media deliver mourning mothers de jour but rarely report what these shootings cost the rest of us. Shootings are a public-health and public-finance problem: They deplete taxpayer funds.  

Sadly, shootings are just one cause of death or disability that Americans accept so passively that when activists for any cause play the victim card, journalists see it as a joke.

Other acknowledged risks compete for our acceptance.

Here’s an example. The New York Times recently reported the international scientific consensus that 2014 was the hottest global year on record, and the rising temperature was found in oceans that cover most of the earth’s surface.

GOP hostility to science apart, if oceans rise high enough, they’ll cover the lowest-lying land. Before long, tourists to London, Manhattan and Miami might need waders, and tropical island nations could drown under rising oceans.

Republican climate-change deniers, like medieval Danish King Canute, can’t hold back the waves.

Related to this is a new phenomenon. Increasingly, the global scientific consensus is persuading reporters and editors that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was right when he called anti-science fellow Republicans the “party of stupid.”  

Presidential aspirant Jindal’s no fool — Hurricane Katrina will be remembered as a summer squall if coastal Louisiana is inundated by a rising ocean.

Journalists risk scorn if we point out that whatever Republicans believe about conception and evolution, the evidence points to climate change and associated perils.

Just acceptable risks. Sort of like loaded bedside handguns at home.

Meanwhile, mainstream American journalism remains under consistent, corrosive right-wing criticism meant to undermine public confidence in serious watchdog journalism.

Another acceptable risk is the passivity with which we accept millions of unskilled and poorly schooled young people who never will hold a job that pays well enough to support a family or children. 

Tackling this complex mess would require reporters at least to ask why too many teacher-training programs grow with low entrance requirements compared to other colleges on their campuses. 

Then journalists also would have to ask how parents can do so badly so often that their hungry, abused children are beyond even the best teachers’ abilities. 

All of this could force reporters to report the evidence of growing links among corporations and politicians who oppose unions, oppose efforts to reduce global warming, invest in fossil fuels and lobby for still-greater for-profit K-12 and post-secondary education.

Still another acceptable risk is massive, enduring theft from Medicare and Medicaid by health care providers. State and federal officials never will have the resources — allocated by legislators sensitive to lobbying by the health care industry — to police the myriad claims on the public treasury.

News media report when prosecutors find a particularly egregious health care cheat, but there is a trove of data waiting to be analyzed by reporters who are unwilling to wait for official announcements. 

So we accept that there isn’t enough taxpayer money to train physicians or to insure and treat many truly ill Americans.  

To address these and similar problems — not “challenges,” “opportunities” or “issues” — many editors will have to give up their knee-jerk embrace of the modern American idolization of victimhood.

That could be tough. It will offend. And it will piss off a lot of people, some of whom read newspapers and magazines and dine with national and local news media elites.  

The news media do a better job following sports than calling us to account for our lethal behaviors. It’s not that the news media — print, broadcast, cable, Internet — lack information or staying power. Look at the sports pages. 

Acceptable risk is so ingrained that it threatens national security and economic well-being and gives “objectivity” as a traditional news value a bad name. 

And most news media don’t get it. Those who recognize the problem tend to publish or broadcast from a partisan or activist perspective. Whether we agree with their interpretation of generally accepted information is less important than their effort to make sense of what we see and hear.

But to hammer on these risks threatens any remaining fealty to the concept of objectivity as a foundation of the best American journalism. 

Meanwhile, too many American journalists accept the risk that we have become useful idiots, writing about bits and pieces of all of these risks, but if there are dots, we don’t connect them, even when they’re the size of cow pies. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]


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