TOC Sense and sensibility Your Turn

July 1st, 2008

When it does not make sense, laughter is often the only weapon. Look at the US Social Security. It seems to have lost its identity. On the one hand, Robert Pear reports(*) its complaint that Medicare prints Social Security numbers on Medicare cards, undoubtedly contributing to ID theft. On the other hand, the US Federal Government insists States issue id cards only after verifying the corresponding Social Security records. Is then Social Security a National Identity System in thin disguise or a much abused agency whose intellectual property is being ripped off?

I suspect it is more a case of schizophrenia (1), contagious to boot. Lawful US residents themselves have both a public name, with which they call themselves, and an unprintable identity, their Social Security Numbers (SSN), known to no one else except every American organization with which they have ever dealt with in their lives. The concept of a shared secret password for life may be pure madness, it has nevertheless its own logic. Mandating Medicare to spend an estimated $500M to hide it a bit better makes sense. Eliminating ID thieves' main motivation would make even more sense. Yet what could top the madness of attempting, in the process, to curtail the ill-gotten gains of the credit reporting bureaus?

Sensibility tells us all truths are not good to tell. In an article (**) filed on John McCain's adviser's faux pas (2), Michael Cooper quotes Michael Kinsley as saying "[gaffes] occur not when people lie, but when they say what they really think". He then reports John McCain's reaction to his advisor's candor, "I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true." Seeing sense, John McCain will not be caught saying what he really thinks.

Not surprisingly, Internet redraws the rules of this age-old game of sense and sensibility. For example, Malcolm Venable asks whether media impartiality can survive the rise of social networks (***). Since journalists are bound to have personal biases, the question is whether it is sensible or not for them to pad personal pages with references to preferred candidates. Does it make their reporting less trustworthy? Professionalism ought to trump personal opinions. When a US President in need of an operation inquires about the surgeon's party fealty, isn't it always as a joke? The issue lies not so much with the writer. Rather can one read an article objectively if one knows the author's personal position?

Control over information is power. When power comes into play, sense and sensibility seem in short supply. Noam Cohen's report on how the sudden death of a television news anchor was announced is one for the textbooks (****). Because of Tim Russert's celebrity (3), his passing away so unexpectedly was newsworthy, what we call a piece of explosive information. In such cases, the best outcome is to put out the news as fast as possible. "Holding back the news certainly isn't the norm for journalists". What if the same fate had befallen an important Spanish political figure (4)?

Yet Tim Russert's death was handled by his company as insider information to be made public at the discretion of the company. Indeed, according to Noam Cohen, the unnamed "junior employee" who disclosed it on Wikipedia ahead of the appointed time was promptly fired by his or her employer, which services NBC affiliates. Traditional media's love for leaks has limits and scoops are the privilege of the credentialed.

New media however is just as uncomfortable with factual truth. Wikipedia establishes truth by popular consensus, framed by a coopted fraternity of guardians who ask contributors to cite sources. Designed to prevent rumors, this process discourages first hand information. But read Wikipedia on Tim Russert's death (5). It gives Noam Cohen as a source, who reports NBC News said "it was told the employee was fired". If this is true, it is sensible to hide the identity of the tarred truthteller. Doesn't the whole approach turn everyone involved into a rumormonger, still?

Mark Twain once called into question newspaper accuracy. Today Wikipedia would fault him for denying his own death without a proper source.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Agency Sees Theft Risk For ID Card In Medicare, by Robert Pear (New-York Times) - June 22, 2008
  • (**) ......... No.1 Faux Pas In Washington? Candor, Perhaps, by Michael Cooper (New-York Times) - June 25, 2008
  • (***) ..... Bias creeps into coverage, by Malcolm Venable (Metro) - June 25, 2008
  • (****) .. Delaying News In the Era of the Internet, by Noam Cohen (New-York Times) - June 23, 2008
  • (1) used in the popular sense of split personalities. For a more informed perspective, see schizophrenia in the wikipedia
  • (2) Pardon my French, but il ne faut pas faire de faux pas. What the faux pas at hand is about is irrelevant.
  • (3) see Tim Russert in wikipedia
  • (4) see entries for El Cid and Franco in wikipedia
  • (5) being controversial, this entry may be subject to change. Here is a frozen copy taken on June 30th
June 2008
Copyright © 2008 ePrio Inc. All rights reserved.