Here is the lesson for the day. If you want to understand the world around you, do not watch television news. If you want to understand how bad American television news is, watch it without the sound. Focus on the crawl along the bottom, the body language and the various “flashes.” “Breaking news: chance of showers tomorrow, 30 percent.”
This is not a left-right thing, although there are issues there for sure. There were two big stories last week. They’re both still big. One was the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine and the other is the Israeli-Gaza violence. In “covering” these stories, all of the news outlets have contributed to the lobotomization of the American public.
There are consistent subtexts. First, whatever or wherever the story, it is always about the United States. A Malaysian plane flying from Amsterdam is shot down over Ukraine, apparently one American on board. What is this story about? To the “anchors” and their talking head “experts,” it is about American leadership, or, depending on the network, the lack of American leadership.
On Fox News, it is that, if the United States had a true leader, a bold leader like Vladimir Putin, Russia would never have taken the actions that it has taken and, therefore, the plane would not have been shot down. It’s always about us, kind of a case of national narcissism.
And on television news, there is no complexity. Everything is binary. There are only two sides to every story, each represented by a talking head from one of the two sides.
Then there is the desperate search to fill airtime, the reliance on visuals, the repetition and the dive into minutiae. So, the most important question in the airliner case becomes: What will the black boxes tell us? (The first thing they told me is that the black boxes are red. Why is that?)
Then we see for the 4,000th time, a Hamas rocket flying in the sky and a picture of rubble in Gaza, all without any context.
Closer to home, we discover that President Obama is the worst president since World War II. If you don’t watch very closely, depending on your channel selection, the “World War II” point may be omitted. In this implied version, he may be the worst president in American history. Worse than Buchanan, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, W. Bush, Grant, Hoover, Coolidge, Nixon or that big slavery fan John Tyler. By God, he may be worse than King Nebuchadnezzer (Democrat, Babylon), who went crazy and lived as a beast, eating grass in the wilderness during his second term. (Nebuchadnezzer would have definitely been a one-term king in the Internet and social media age.)
The verdict on President Obama was contained in a Quinnipiac poll, which contained several messages beyond the numbers. A big one is the shallowness and dishonesty of much of what passes for news coverage in our country today. We are increasingly a country in which everything goes down a memory hole very quickly, and where things are so polarized that the “two sides” are able to make up historic facts and get away with it.
But here is the biggest message. If you want a poll to say that you are a really good leader, take office in times when the economy is booming, there is a degree of social peace and the world is not falling apart. That is not the world that President Obama has lived in. Instead he inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, two calamitous wars and a Congress that has collapsed as a functioning legislative body.
Contrary to the view from our television screens, the choices that he has had to make have not been between “good” and “bad.” They have largely been between “bad” and “worse,” and in trying to stabilize a bad situation without mortgaging the future. The problem is that you don’t ever get credit – at least not until much later – for making the least bad choice. But leaders do make these choices.
In television news land, if we had just done “x,” it would all have turned out great. This is the right-wing mantra. Except that “x” wasn’t possible or, more likely, “x” is part of the reason we got here in the first place. Or it is never spelled out exactly what “x” is, except for the fact that it is the opposite of what Obama did. Rarely do we hear, “If I were in the leader’s position, here is what I would do.”
The United States’ involvement in two disastrous wars has ended, with the rewriting of history already beginning. (If we had “stayed the course,” we could have achieved “victory.”) The economy is slowly recovering. (“If we had just followed Mitt Romney’s policies, tax cuts for the rich, service cuts for the leeches and self-deportation for illegal immigrants, it would be booming.)
There is a reality. When President Obama leaves office, we will almost certainly not be at war. The economy will be growing, but not creating enough jobs. We will have avoided economic collapse. He won’t be given much credit for any of these achievements.
Which brings us to the Virgin Islands. With one big exception, the territory’s experience in the past seven years tracks that on the mainland. Deep recession and painful choices have been the hallmarks of this entire period. The goal has often been to find the “least worst” choice, while, as on the mainland, reputable people were willing to believe – or at least say for political reasons – that there was a happy choice out there.
Then there is the one big exception to the mainland narrative. Hovensa.
Beyond the recession, neither President Obama, nor the governor of any state has faced the double whammy of recession and an event on the scale of the Hovensa closing. (There is a close “counter-factual.” In 2009, the American auto industry was on the brink of collapse. It was saved by the Obama administration. Numerous analyses have now documented that, had it not been saved, the economies of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio would have been devastated.)
Nobody could save Hovensa or the jobs that it represented. Its closing has been a disaster for the territory. As in other instances, Gov. John deJongh Jr. has refused to engage in denial, a perennial Virgin Islands favorite, and has sought and found the least bad outcome. Part of being in denial is to refuse to seek the least damaging choice. Circumstances then make the choice for you, but you can always deny responsibility because you didn’t choose.
In seeking solutions, the governor has dealt with a Legislature as dysfunctional as the United States Congress, two institutions which simultaneously find ways to throw sand in any available gear and drain any possible joy from life. As they used to say, who is your favorite Menendez brother?
There are the usual election signs all over the territory: “vision,” “brighter future,” etc. One of these candidates will become governor in January. He or she will inherit a set of problems. But they will also inherit stability and a platform for a better future that no one should – but many will – take for granted. That platform was built by solid leadership, which faced some of the most daunting challenges in more than a generation.
There are no statues honoring those who led in hard times, monuments that say, “It could have been a lot worse.” There should be.