Monday, July 21, 2008

My Mother the Historian

Tibor R. Machan

Heidelberg, Germany. My mother, who lives in Germany now, is nearly 90 years old and enjoys full use of her mental faculties. If anything, she is sharper now than she has ever been, partly because at her age she no longer can be bothered with trivial problems and has come to accept her situation for exactly what it is. One reason she is in such good shape, both mentally and to a considerable extent physically, is that all her life she has been an athlete, competing for many decades and later coaching in the sport of fencing.

On a recent visit I asked her whether judging by the stream of television, radio, and print media news reports she finds the world she is aware of now much worse, roughly the same or much batter than it had been throughout her life. I figured she would have a reasonably educated opinion about this, having lived through so much, smack in the middle of Europe. The incredible economic upheavals in the first third of the 20th century, then World War II and the Holocaust, then the cold war which she spend in communist Hungary, and then the post 9/11 years. So I asked her whether she thinks that today we are in such dire straits as so many commentators claim we are?

As usually, my mother doesn’t make snap judgments but in the end the gist of what she said was this: “Over the nearly 80 years of my conscious life I have found that the worst thing was my and millions of other people’s lives under Soviet style communism, with only the brief but horrible experience with the Third Reich to match it. Apart from that, things have been up and down but pretty decent during most times and the current hysteria is just that, a way for politicians to scare people so they will entrust them with the job of solving problems by taking everyone’s money and imposing numerous restrictions of individual liberties and claming this is necessary so as to remedy whatever ails us.”

My mother and I do not share each other’s overall philosophy, not by a long shot. She certainly is no libertarian. But on this issue she and I see eye to eye. I have never been convinced that the hyperbole broadcast at television viewers gives an accurate picture of how things are with the world. Nearly every day’s headlines suggest that everything is going to hell in a hand-basket.

So with my mother’s admittedly amateurish but not ignorant help, I go back to my old adage: “For every minute of watching TV news, also watch a minute of some travel program.” Between the two sources of how the world is doing, one is likely to get an accurate and balanced picture. Nearly everything reported on the news presents the world as a miserable, failed arena of human affairs, while nearly everything shown on travel programs gives us a rosy view wherever the host is taking us, whatever aspect of human life he or she shares with us.

No doubt there are overall better and worse times we all face around us but they are rarely as lousy as the reporters, anchors, and commentators at Fox TV, CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC make them out to be. A quick clue to this is available by comparing the facial expressions of the anchors, reporters, and commentators in the media to the facial expressions of the people one encounters in restaurants, sporting events, family dinners and so forth. Indeed, if the former were an accurate representation of the mood of the world, I suspect there would be far more suicides than there actually are. Hardly anyone could carry on with the attitude these media folks convey to us. A great many more of us than actually do would throw in the towel.

Sadly, the mood conveyed in the media has its influence and that is something highly lamentable. But if one remembers that those folks have a personal stake in making things look much worse than they are, one may regain a more levelheaded perspective on the world as well as about one’s own—and one’s children’s and grandchildren’s—prospects.
The Statism of CNN

Tibor R. Machan

Should one ever claim that mainstream media is statist, let alone Left leaning, a bunch of voices will rise in protest. How could that be? After all, don’t giant corporations own the media? Which, of course, assumes something totally unwarranted, namely, that corporations are managed by champions of free enterprise. Baloney. Corporate managers can be just as devoted to trying to get government to redistribute wealth in their direction as are educators, artists, scientists, farmers, or any other “special interest” group.

The charge that is worth considering is that the media, especially news organizations with their commentators and reporters, lean toward statism, which is to say, they favor turning to government with nearly any problem people face in their communities. The only exception is where the press itself faces problems, and when it comes to religious matters, mainly because the fairly strong tradition of separation of journalism and government, as well as religion and government, at least in the United States of America.

On a recent lecture tour through a good bit of Europe I had a chance to watch BBC-TV and CNN-TV quite regularly. Although I speak and understand a smattering of German, English is the language I use routinely for obtaining information on current affairs.

On one occasion I was watching a report on Kenya which just went through an especially violent election season. I turns out that one result of this has been a serious reduction of tourism in that country the economy of which is usually the vital beneficiary of this industry.

At the beginning of the broadcast CNN’s anchor introduced the topic and then brought in a stringer from Kenya who elaborated on it, giving some specifics, numbers, and anecdotal evidence. Once this was over, the camera went back to the anchor who promptly posed the following question: “What is the Kenyan government doing about this problem?” Exactly why it is the government’s task to do anything at all about tourism in Kenya viewers were not told. Just what skills does the government possess that would especially qualify it to do something about this problem? Nothing was said about that.

Imagine for a moment that the TV audience was being given a report on a sporting event, say the recent Wimbledon tennis tournament. As was the case this year, many of the games, especially during finals, experienced inclement weather. Frequent showers led to stoppage of matches and a few had to be extended into the wee hours of the night. But, lo and behold, no commentators raised the question, “What are the referees doing about the inclement weather?”

But, you may say, well the weather is something very different from violent interruptions of political elections. Yes, in some ways it is. But in some ways it isn’t. Both manage to interrupt normal proceedings and neither can be dealt with post facto, including by those charged with upholding the rules. While the government might have done something about the violence that interrupted Kenyan electoral politics, once the interruption occurred, what could it do? Nothing.

The best way to improve the climate for tourism in Kenya has nothing much to do with government. It has to do with merchants getting back to work, resorts opening their doors, oil companies revving up their productivity, and business in general hiring reliable security agents; this might well make Kenya into an especially appealing place for tourists to visit with no help from the government.

It is, of course, ironic that a CNN’s anchor would assume that government will solve Kenya’s tourism problem, given that governments tend to pose rather annoying obstacles to tourism in most places around the globe. Moreover, the violence during the election campaigns had been prompted, in large measure, by the political circumstances of Kenya, so it isn’t likely that politicians are going to manage to remedy matters.

In any case, the point I wish to focus on is just how readily CNN buys into the government habit, how it is nearly second nature to its anchors to expect all problems to be solved by government, never mind whether it is government’s expertise that best addresses the problem. And CNN isn’t alone, only a clear cut example. For CNN the government is treated as the almighty. Not only is it not the task of news anchors to perpetuate the myth of almighty government but such a myth will reinforce false expectations.

It is bad enough that too many ordinary folks place their trust in government—the use of physical force—but to have the supposedly impartial, unbiased media reinforce this is unprofessional and truly lamentable.