Sunday, November 11, 2007

Albom, Osama and Pat: On journalism, risk and the normal distribution of clues

Sure, it's a Stupid Question, but it's so much more:

Is there a murder plot in your child's head?
You give them life, they try to kill you.

That sentence should never apply to your children. But it does in the sad case of a Maryland teenager named Cory Ryder, who tried to hire a hit man to kill his parents.


This is such pitch-perfect Albom that it's kind of a shame it's the real thing, rather than a parody: Average Joe bewildered at the State of Things These Days (conveniently, it's Things in a State a couple of hundred miles to the southeast, which cuts down on the need to do anything more original than Reading the Intertubes, which is even easier than what we used to call Reading The Wires).

... But I do know that we are living in strange times. There are forces that suck our kids away from us that our ancestors never had to face. It is no shock that Ryder was into rap and video games. (Mitch! Surely you're not ...) I am not blaming them. I cite them as things that are wall builders in families.

OK. Sorry. This week's column wouldn't even be worth noting if it weren't for a bizarre McClatchy piece up in the A section:

A good recruit is hard to find
War in Iraq only adds to the problem; fear keeps many from enlisting

THURMONT, Md. -- The Army is struggling to find volunteers for an unpopular war, despite recruiting bonuses of up to $20,000 and pay increases for enlistees that have beaten inflation by 21% since 2000.

Long story short, the consensus of "experts" summoned for this tale is that the big issue is fear: as one recruiter puts it, "They all figure they're going to get sent to Iraq, be in a firefight in the first 10 seconds and die," he said. The writer reassures us: While it may seem that way, it's not.
Indeed, once we stop comparing apples to Yamahas, things start to look brighter, don't they?

Per year deployed, the death risk for U.S. troops in Iraq is about a fifth of that for troops in the Vietnam War, according to University of Pennsylvania demographer Samuel Preston and the study's coauthor, Emily Buzzell.

Preston attributes the exaggerated fear mainly to news media exposure.

The news media is "always after the dramatic violence," he said. (Happy Veterans Day to you too, pal. And did the reporter not ask how you calculate the risk for multiple deployments, or did you not tell?)

Indeed, Pentagon surveys show that the more attention high school students pay to news, the less likely they are to enlist. (This looks like a chicken-and-egg question, but it's really more like a chicken-two-eggs question. As in, quick: think of some antecedent conditions that might be related to both (a) news attention and (b) likelihood of enlisting. If you think it's getting hard to figure out where the writer is trying to go with the story, hang on.)

One reason parents in particular tend to exaggerate fear is that they're bad at estimating the likelihood of rare, but horrific events, that might befall their children, said Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Houston and the author of "Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood."

His theory is that parents can't keep rational odds and emotional fears separate in their minds. So they overestimate all kinds of low-probability risks, Mintz said, including risks of child abduction and even unaccompanied trick-or-treating.


How this widespread set of observations become one historian's "theory" is sort of a mystery; it's more or less where we get the whole cognitive subdivision of framing.* Everybody has trouble keeping "rational odds and emotional fears separate," and everybody's bad at accurately estimating rare and scary events. I wonder if that's -- wow, is that something those awful news media could do something about?

Radical Islam cited to rouse `values' voters
Evangelical agenda widens in hopes of revving key GOP bloc

Following last month's Values Voter Summit in Washington, conservative Christian power broker Gary Bauer sent an e-mail to supporters.

He ticked off the issues dear to activists in attendance. Opposition to "abortion-on-demand" and preservation of traditional marriage led the way.

Then the one-time presidential hopeful turned his attention to a different threat. ... "The war against Islamofascism is in many respects a `values issue,' " Bauer wrote. "That may seem like an odd statement at first glance, but, as I have often said, losing Western Civilization to this vicious enemy would be immoral."


"It's the ultimate life issue," said Rick Scarborough, president of the Texas-based conservative Christian group Vision America. "If radical Islam succeeds in its ultimate goals, Christianity ceases to exist."

That might sound alarmist, but Scarborough's words illustrate how many conservative Christian leaders view matters of national security as a battle between good and evil -- nothing short of a clash of civilizations.


It doesn't just sound alarmist. It is alarmist (actually, "alarmist" is far too polite for that sort of irrational babbling, but I suppose AP's still writing for the family newspaper). This is what the Copenhagen gang means by "securitization": turning a particular threat into an all-encompassing imminent menace to cultural and physical survival, requiring extraordinary measures for indefinite periods. Take my habeas corpus. Please!

Needless to say, the political actor who gets to call "security!" on an issue also gets a say in deciding which rights you should give up and when you should think about wondering whether to ask for any of them back. How can we help in the media, you ask? Well ...

The use of "Islamofascism" is another flashpoint. Proponents of the term argue that Islamic radicals who embrace totalitarian methods evoke European fascist movements of the early 20th century. Critics call it manufactured propaganda, a 21st-century scare tactic that fails to capture the complex causes of terrorism.

Deleting paragraphs like this, and not pretending there's an argument or controversy here in the first place, would be a good start. There aren't two sides to this issue. "Islamofascism" is manufactured propaganda, brought to you by the same folks who told you to say "homicide bomber" when you mean "somebody who kills himself and nobody else" (Fox meets the Stasi: We decide, you report).

• Televangelist Pat Robertson, explaining his endorsement last week of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said "the overriding issue before the American people is the defense of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists." ...
• At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in June, evangelical thinker Charles Colson spoke of a "long war" against Islamofascists.

How can you help these silly old frauds and poor Mitch Albom at the same time? Well, what if we started talking about risk rationally? What if we sent Mitch back to the sports pages and left the social fearmongering to the pulpits? What if we let on that we know a propaganda campaign when we see one? What if Pat Robertson was on notice that we're still waiting for the million-deaths nuclear attack he told us to expect this year? What if we stopped letting people play "teach the controversy" on the news pages when one side is openly dishonest?

We need to report on what the Bauers and Robertsons are up to (as Martin Luther put it, their craft and power are great). We can, and should, be courteous to political actors who come to do business in the public sphere. But it'd be kind of nice if we had some Pure Food and Drug laws in our back pockets, for those days when the snake oil gets a little too thick for the palate.

* Whether the aduction of children by strangers would still be considered an extremely low-probability event if it happened several hundred times a year in lots of communities of fewer than 200,000, of course, is a different matter.

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

And if these Christofascists had their way, Islam would disappear, but I guess that's okay.

9:03 AM, November 12, 2007  
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