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Needed: better reporting on how problems are dealt with elsewhere

COMMENTARY | September 30, 2007

In coverage of many problem areas, not just health-care plans, reporters would do well to go beyond local, state or national boundaries to compare practices and find systems that work and could be replicated. Morton Mintz wrote about this in the 70s, and wonders why such reporting still seems taboo. (Last of three articles.)

By Morton Mintz

The nutritionally deficient reporting on health care described in the first two articles in this series is but one example of a long-standing general failure of journalism to compare differing approaches to common problems taken by other nations. A wonderful if belated exception was a New York Times "Editorial Observer" piece this summer headlined, "I Love Paris on a Bus, a Bike, a Train and in Anything but a Car." Serge Schmemann began:

Now that Michael Moore has broken a taboo by holding up France as a model for national health care, maybe it's safe to point out other things France seems to do right. Like how Paris is trying to manage traffic and auto pollution.

What Paris has done right is to make it awful to get around by car and awfully easy to get around by public transportation or by bike. Any tourist in a rent-a-car who's circumnavigated the Arc de Triomphe most likely will never drive in Paris again. But there are plenty of Parisians who do it all the time – far too many, in fact. So Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist, vowed in coming to office in 2001 to reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020.

He's serious about it. I live near the Boulevard St. Michel, and two years ago the city laid down a granite divider between the bus-only lane and the cars, squeezing private cars from three lanes to two. Taxis and bicycles may use the bus lane.

At the same time, every bus stop was newly equipped with a screen that told you how long the wait was for the bus. During rush hour, when the cars stand still along Boul' Mich, there's nothing better than zooming past them in a bus.

Bus routes reach the most obscure corners of Paris. There's also the Metro – and especially the great Line No. 1, which runs on tires under the Champs-Élysées and beyond. Then there's a nifty new tramway that runs along the southern rim of the city and several suburban train lines that can be used for rapid transport within the city.

In short, public transportation will take you where you want to go, and you can use it all you want on an electronic card that can be paid by the week or by the month (about $70 these days). Taxis, of course, can also be summoned anywhere by phone.

Long ago, I tried to persuade the Washington Post to break the "taboo," as Schmemann rightly called it. Failing, I turned to other forums, starting in 1974 with a talk at a newspaper workshop at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. The talk morphed into "Comparative journalism / What we don't know does hurt us", an article in the May / June 1975 Columbia Journalism Review. It's my conceit that the article remains timely, as Serge Schmemann demonstrated. It's unavailable on the Web, but CJR kindly gave me permission to post it here:


At the Third A. J. Liebling CounterConvention, held in May of 1974, I gave the first reading before my peers of Mintz's Mass Media Proposition. I was careful to say that it is not an axiom, not a law; that it is full of loopholes, and should not be carried to extremes. I would like to repeat it here because, despite the qualifiers, it has, I believe, an essential validity. Here it is: If it's really important, it doesn't get the attention it deserves, or gets it late, or gets it only because some oddball pushes it. One little-noted manifestation of this situation is the lack of what Dan Morgan, a Washington Post colleague and friend, terms comparative journalism.

I am talking, first of all, about the kind of problems that cut close to the lives, health, and pocketbooks of our readers, such as the safety of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food and drugs we ingest, the vehicles in which we travel, the places where we work, and the power plants which supply us with electricity.

I am also talking about the prices we pay and the taxes we pay, and what we get for our money. We—our city, our state, our country—deal unsatisfactorily with many of the problems that fall under my general descriptions, as we all know. Other cities, other states, and other countries have found better, or at least innovative, answers to some of these sample problems, as we too often don't know. Which is my point: news media, albeit with certain qualifications, do not give reliable, sustained, prominent, and priority attention to telling us who's ahead in dealing with these problems, although they consistently give such attention to who's ahead in the National League.

Responding to criticism of their foreign coverage, some news media commendably have spent substantial sums to report wars, revolutions, disasters, diplomatic developments, persecutions, and the like, but they have yet to be seriously criticized for neglecting foreign coverage of problem-solving.

To cite a homely example, I have yet to meet a person who, in buying a house, didn't feel he was taken in charges for title search and title insurance. But how many people know that in England the government keeps the records, certifies titles, and charges small fees which go into a public insurance fund that pays off for any mistakes that occur? I didn't know that until recently, when I came on the news in a book—David Hapgood's “The Screwing of the Average Man.”

Again, we all know that men and women throughout the country find their jobs deadly dull and dehumanizing and their work environment authoritarian. How many of us know anything at all of the fascinating story of the experiments in industrial democracy—the possession of real decision-making power, over substantial matters, by an enterprise's employees—which have transformed workplaces in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Israel, Britain, West Germany, and, if you please, the United States? I found that story, once again, in a book – David Jenkins's “Job Power: Blue and White Collar Democracy.”

We don't always have to go abroad to find a case in point. In the 1950s, when I was an assistant city editor at the Globe Democrat in St. Louis, I had the pleasure--and it really was that—of persuading the management that we should investigate the cozy relationship between the State of Missouri and favored banks. Essentially, it was a classic relationship in which the state, whether the governor was a Democrat or a Republican, deposited tens of millions of dollars in favored banks for long periods at no interest. The banks then invested the funds, sometimes in small loans on which the interest rate ran as high as 28 percent.

Appropriately grateful, the banks made the necessary but relatively trivial campaign contributions, always, of course, without evidencing narrow partisanship. As a result of a superb three-month investigation by Carl E. Major and Ray J. Noonan, the bank lobby not only collapsed, but was so deeply embarrassed that it ended up actually supporting a constitutional amendment requiring investment of idle funds. The amendment was adopted and, in the first year in which it was in effect, yielded the taxpayers about $1 million which, for all practical purposes, would otherwise have been stolen from them.

But where was the comparative journalism to carry Missouri's example effectively to media in other states, some of which still collect little or no interest on public funds? With happy result, The Washington Post exposed Maryland's wasteful handling of its idle state funds—but that was not until 1973.

I suspect that the lack or insufficiency of comparative journalism internationally may have graver consequences. For starters, George Orwell, in his autobiographical “The Road to Wigan Pier,” warned in 1937 against sterile public housing; we here paid no heed. Again, although Scandinavia has been a pacesetter in dealing with numerous areas of common concern, this aspect has generally been as remote in our news media as the dark side of the moon;

Scandinavia has tended, instead, to become synonymous with pornography, alcoholism, suicide, and deserters. We have heard little about a system devised in Sweden for rating automobiles for insurance purposes in terms of relative collision-repair costs, about a system which pipes apartment house garbage underground, about the good housing, about delivery of healthcare services, about the protection of miners. (A couple of recent, noteworthy exceptions were in The New York Times: Lawrence K. Altman's pieces on hospitals in Sweden, and Agis Salpukas's articles on efforts in Scandinavia to humanize mass production.)

Not long ago I learned that the Scandinavian countries had concluded a unique treaty under which a citizen of one of them who had suffered damages from pollution originating in another of the countries acquires, for purposes of litigation, citizenship in the country which was the pollution source. But how did I learn this? From a letter – not a story – in The New York Times sent in by a man who noted that U.S. media had given the treaty no attention…

The message, I believe, is this: many countries facing problems similar to our own have pioneered new approaches and, sometimes, come up with solutions; yet our news media remain insufficiently concerned to give this kind of foreign news the coverage it obviously deserves.

[Click here for the first article in this series, and here for the second one.]

Posted by Eric Roth - University of Southern California. Lecturer of an upper division writing course. I also freelance, authored Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics, and run the website www.compellingconversations.com .
11/30/2007, 09:00 PM

Thank you for writing an illuminating, if depressing, review of media narrow-mindedness.
Perhaps the cliche about our living in an age of globalization will give journalists, editors, and educators a chance to zoom out a bit, and look beyond our national borders for potential solutions to persistent social problems.

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