By Steve Kelman

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Why public silence greets government success

steve kelman

In the spring issue of the American Prospect, there is an interesting article with the same title as this blog post, by Jonathan Cohn, a writer for the Huffington Post.  (The article does not seem to be available online.) Cohn's article takes as its starting point the public and media response to the Ebola crisis last October. Now, the Prospect is an avowedly liberal magazine, and the article is written from a liberal perspective. Nonetheless, I think the message is important for people on the mainstream left and right of the political spectrum (i.e. excluding people who want government to fail either from the left, because they believe government oppresses the poor, or -- these days more commonly -- from the right, who believe that the more government succeeds, the more powerful it will become).

The article begins by noting that, as the epidemic spread in Africa and the first cases appeared in the U.S., there was not only very widespread media coverage, but also a perception that government was failing in its response -- and that this failure illustrated the collapse of popular trust in government. Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post that "Ebola has crystallized the collapse of trust in state authorities." Ron Fournier wrote in National Journal, "Ebola is a serious threat, but it's not the disease that scares me. What scares me is the fact that we can't trust the institutions that are supposed to deal with such threats."

A month later, Cohn continues, the Ebola outlook had "changed dramatically." Every person who had contracted the disease in the U.S. had recovered, thanks to care in special facilities either built by the government before the crisis or retrofitted by the government to deal with new cases. The light-touch airport screening the administration had decided on over calls for travel bans had done the trick, with no new Ebola cases in the U.S. after the new rules were initiated. And the epidemic in Africa, also with the help of the U.S. government (along with many brave volunteer organizations) seemed to be contained.

As will come as no surprise to many readers of this blog, few voices appeared to praise the government's successes. Instead, success was greeted with media silence. While CNN ran 146 stories on Ebola the week in mid-October when the panic was peaking, a month later, with success in hand, the number dropped to five.

Along with other commentators on how the media covers government news, I have noted a number of times the basic proposition that in government, failure is greeted with uproar, headlines, congressional hearings and calls for "accountability" (which in reality is a nice word for "punishment"), while success is greeted with silence. Instead of the old adage, "No news is good news," mass media coverage of government (I exclude government-related trade press such as FCW!) follows the rule, "Good news is no news."

All of us who care about good government realize that this encourages government officials to be overly cautious and risk-averse, to shun innovation or changes that have some risk of failure.

In the background to this imbalance is plummeting trust in government's ability to do the right thing. When Americans were asked in the 1950s and1960s whether government could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time, about three-quarters answered yes. In the last few years, the figure has hovered between 15 percent and 25 percent. The precipitous drop occurred in the context of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and never recovered. (Interestingly, fluctuations in trust today, from the very low base to which it has descended, are driven almost exclusively by people's optimism about the economy.)

Cohn discusses one interesting explanation for low trust, which is that, given how many government programs are designed, individuals often don't even know they are benefitting. One study shows that 60 percent of people who claim the earned income tax credit say they have never benefitted from a government program. Much of the stimulus money in 2009 and 2010 that most economists believe played an important role (along with the Bush administration's rescue of failing financial institutions) in preventing a depression during the financial crisis was not visible to people; it came in the form of tax cuts and government grants that went into state and local budgets. Cohn argues, here from a liberal perspective, that government programs should be designed to be more visible to beneficiaries.

But again, mainstream liberal and mainstream conservatives alike should want our government to do its job well, even though their views of what that job should be will vary significantly. I do not have a solution to this problem, but I think it would be a good start if journalists covering government pledged to themselves that, for every eight stories they write excoriating government failures, they write, say, two that cover a success. That seems like a very modest proposal for doing something about the current imbalance.

Any journalist want to take a "2 out of 10" pledge?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 23, 2015 at 12:14 PM


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