Where's the Rage?

$240,000 may seem like peanuts compared to the gargantuan national debt. Nonetheless, that's the amount of money the US Department of Education confiscated from you and me and paid to Armstrong Williams for his promotion of the No Child Left Behind Act. Egregious, yes. Surprising, no.

Williams says he "believes in" the program. He only accepted the stolen loot because he supported NCLB anyway. He would have promoted it voluntarily.

The DOE apparently paid Williams to promote NCLB as part of an "outreach" program. In other words, government officials hired a black person to talk up a program they know many black Americans are skeptical about – and rightly so. Part of Williams' contract was also to encourage other prominent black journalists and pundits in America's Black Forum to promote NCLB as well. Does anyone else find this insulting?

The media have regurgitated this story with a detached indifference, just as they cover all government idiocy. News reports on celebrity gossip evoke more passion in journalists. Admittedly, the Armstrong Williams scandal isn't a life or death issue. I was sickened to hear, however, the nonchalant reports this weekend of US forces in Iraq mistakenly dropping a 500-pound bomb on a residence in Iraq. We killed 14 innocent people. Oops.

Even those who are incensed by the pundit's payoff seem assuaged by the fact that it has spurred an investigation. Reaction to government failures typically follows a formulaic course: an official reports that one or another fat bureaucracy has "formed a committee" which is "looking into" the debacle. This only happens if and when coverage of the goof creates enough public murmuring.

Why are people so placated by investigations? The government is investigating – with your money – a scandal in which it illegally paid someone – using your money – to spew propaganda for another of its disastrous programs – which you are paying for both in monetary terms and in terms of the program's unintended consequences. It's happened hundreds of times with hundreds of other government disappointments in the exact same way. Not to worry. "They're looking into it."

Where's the rage? Has everyone suddenly become a pacifist? I think it's safe to assume that we have not. So why do I feel like the only person who gets fired up about anything done by the mob of organized criminals running amok in Washington, DC?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question came to me via a commentator on my favorite War Network.

The Leviathan state has become so bloated that it intrudes into virtually every area of our daily lives. Naturally, this makes for a lot of news. The hawkish commentator explained it quite eloquently: for journalists to get news information from any government source, they have to "make nice." They must gain a reputation for asking the right questions – i.e., ones that don't rock the boat – and for spinning stories to cast politicians and government programs in a favorable light. Only then will officials talk. It increasingly appears that we have a free press in name only.

As Harry Browne points out, most journalists have strong political views. Liberal or conservative, people in the press see themselves as reformers who can broadcast their views to others and elicit change. And they unquestioningly see the government as the arbiter of such change.

Mainstream news reports have another interesting feature as well: they are reductive. Stories are condensed to a few key details in the interest of holding short viewer attention spans and covering as many stories as possible in a finite period of time. Unfortunately this practice often leads to vast oversimplification of complex issues. It's common for people exposed to oversimplified reporting to assume that hearing a few shallow points makes them experts on the issue. An often-suggested panacea for any complex problem is more government intervention, and usually the newly ordained experts only serve to rally "public support" for it.

The media are notorious for fear mongering and sensationalism. Shocking headlines sell; any crisis – real or invented – is a boon to journalists. Government thrives on crisis. Whatever problem the media hypes ad infinitum is a perfect opportunity for some politician to swoop in and save the day with another useless program. Later, the unintended consequences of that program will create yet another crisis, which the media will again oversimplify and exaggerate. More intervention will result.

Worse yet, the exceedingly pro-government media continually claim objectivity. When people consider the news they hear unbiased, they more likely neglect to take it with the proverbial grain of salt. Unfortunately, even the "most trusted" and the most "fair and balanced" news requires a large saltshaker for the viewer or reader. Both the ubiquity of news pertaining to the government and the self-proclaimed objectiveness of the media contribute to the notions that many Americans share about government: government is intrinsic to our lives; government is a natural and benign entity; government is a "necessary evil."

Some consumers of information have increasingly begun to sense deception on the part of the "objective" media, however. This is one reason for the increasing popularity of Internet news sources and weblogs over television, newspaper, and AM/FM radio broadcasts. "Alternative" news sources usually make no bones about displaying their biases directly and clearly. Guests of, for example, know exactly what they're reading – and it's anti-state, anti-war, and pro-market.

My conclusion? Well, since my own biases are fairly transparent, you may have already guessed it. The Department of Miseducation which paid Armstrong Williams to espouse crazy government schemes might as well have saved its – oops, I mean our – money. DC has Big Media wrapped around its grubby little finger.

January 10, 2005