media annoyances part 2: Tom Ashbrook “On Point”

So Adam Nagourney certainly was annoying me today, but yesterday, I was way more irate at someone I don’t usually hate, Tom Ashbrook, in his radio show “On Point”. Granted, I was driving around in Boston traffic, trying to find parking in the over-crowded Longwood Medical Area, and did I mention that I was driving around in Boston traffic? with Boston drivers? or perhaps I should say “people in Boston who drive cars but really should never have been given licenses to do so”.

Still even though I had massive external provocations (why is it that people in Boston do not seem to have learned how to make left turns in an intersection?) Tom Ashbrook was far more annoying. “On Point”, hosting an hour-long discussion on the earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. At one point a caller made the eminently reasonable point that US resources were committed to Iraq, leaving us vulnerable to natural disasters; he brought up the US national response to Hurricane Katrina.

Now, there are sooo many reasonable responses to this point. But Tom Ashbrook totally ran this one off the rails onto his own bizarre tangent. Which apparently was an interest in discussing how authoritarian governments stack up against democratic governments in responding to natural disasters.


The conversation went like this:

Caller Ron from Sumter, South Carolina: The catastrophe that we had in New Orleans was very small death-wise compared to this one and we saw how that tested our resources. We need to focus our resources on strengthening this country for something exactly like this. Because it could have very easily been San Francisco. How could this country absorb that? Would we be able to absorb it with so many of our resources being sent to Iraq? And I don’t hear anyone saying that. It’s all about Beijing, Beijing, China. But we should use this as an example. Any candidate — no names mentioned — that says staying in Iraq, using our resources over there, when we are in global warming, we teeter every day on the brink of destruction from not another country but from nature. We need to be using our resources to strengthen this country ….

Tom Ashbrook: [We've got your point and it's strongly made.] Orville Schell, it is interesting, if you get online it is not at all hard to find a kind of debate about China’s system and America’s system and whether the speed so far of China’s response to this earthquake may show that it’s more effective, it’s a more authoritarian political system than america’s democracy. There is a kind of dialog that’s underway here about who’s got the better system that works better when the chips are down …

Guest Orville Schell [one of three white male guests; the other was a Chinese male guest]: It’s a very interesting point, and when foreigners do go to China they are just simply flabbergasted … by the level of development … It’s not one or two potemkin cities; it’s all over the country. And we do ask ourselves is democracy the best system and possibly not the most efficient system and maybe China has the answer with its new form of sort of authoritarian and marketized economy. …

Okay, that’s the part that infuriated me. Schell then went on to say what, like, a million other people have already said: That shoddy construction was responsible for the scale of the disaster. He tied this into over-fast development that is poorly planned, and then finished by quickly, in one sentence or so, responding to part of the caller’s point by saying that disasters like this aren’t something any country can really handle. (Which, I think is crap.)

Okay, Tom Ashbrook, I appreciate that it is hard to run a radio show, and respond to issues on the fly, but come on! There is so much wrong here.

First of all, this was almost completely non-responsive to a completely reasonable caller. Ashbrook could have taken it to the election and the candidates’ positions; discussion of global warming; resource allocation to Iraq; whether the US is prepared to meet such a calamity — all reasonable responses to the caller’s question.

Instead, Ashbrook started talking about online chatter comparing democracies and authoritarian regimes in responses to government. Dude, that wasn’t what the caller was talking about. If you’re interested in raising this discussion — which you clearly are — just do it on your own question, and don’t hijack Sam from South Carolina. Or if you’re going to hijack a caller’s question, at least do it on one of the crackpots, and not on somebody making a perfectly reasonable point about US decisions to allocate resources leaving us in a bad place.

Second, while there might have been some interesting points to be made about this online chatter, neither Ashbrook nor Schell chose to make any of them. Instead, they discussed democracies and authoritarian governments in utterly inapposite ways, comparing choices of the government, to choices of the people in electing governments. These two are not the same thing.

Hurricane Katrina was not a failure of “democracy”. It was a failure of the Bush administration. I reluctantly concede that a large number of people in this country had fucked up and stupid priorities in electing Bush, but they still expected, and deserved, a minimum of competence in fulfilling basic government functions like disaster management. The Bush administration chose to prioritize rewarding minor political appointees rather than effective administration. That they were more than usually corrupt and incompetent may not be unexpected, but it wasn’t unreasonable to expect otherwise. (Boy, my grammar certainly got tortured and quadruply negative when having to discuss the reasonableness of not expecting the worst of the Bush administration.)

So why are they going on about authoritarian governments? If online chatter has been comparing disaster responses of an authoritarian government with disaster responses of a democratic government, well, one ought to point out that

(a) disaster response has mostly and most directly to do with government priorities;

(b) to the extent that government competence or interest in disaster response has to do with accountability to the populace, then an authoritarian government has no more reason to make its citizens a priority than does a democratic government, and, rather obviously, has a lot less reason to do so. We might discuss to what extent, and why, China departs from what might be expected of authoritarian governments. Or, as the caller suggested, we might discuss why and to what extent the US departs from what might be expected of democratic governments. But to just assume that whatever differences exist, between China and the US, can be attributed to the method in choosing government is just — well, stupid. So maybe online chatter is being that stupid (or maybe not), but if you the radio show host raise a stupid issue, or raise an issue stupidly, then you really have to point out what’s stupid about it!

(c) if we’re talking about government operations, rather than methods of choosing governments, the US government –especially under the Bush administration — is also authoritarian. In its operation, the US government is not “democratic”. FEMA staff don’t vote on how to respond, or have committee meetings which slow things down. FEMA — and every other government agency in this country — is an authoritarian entity in its operation. The marginal difference in authoritarianism between China and the US does not seem likely to me to account for the differences in Chinese and US disaster responses.

Anyway in retrospect and after listening to the radio archive I blame the whole thing on Tom Ashbrook, and hereby cut white guy Orville Schell a little more slack for attempting to respond to the caller and attempting to make some reasonable conversation out of Tom Ashbrook hijacking of the caller’s question. And, okay, sure, maybe some of my irateness had to do with Boston traffic, and was not wholly due to the willful oversimplification of complex questions and perhaps inadvertent fostering of anti-democratic discourse. Still.