I-35W: Blame-Placing IS Part of the Solution

Unlike a psychopath shooting up a campus, or even a drunk killing six or ten people in a fiery crash, the reasons for the collapse of a major freeway bridge are almost certainly knowable. That means there is significant value in a full, public assessment of those reasons. This tragedy was preventable, and understanding how the critical problem was left unresolved could help prevent another disaster.

With that in mind, here’s a reminder: It is an essential responsibility of journalism to demand answers to events like the collapse of I-35W, particularly when there is an extraordinarily high probability that all-too-ordinary human error, most likely a series of human errors, contributed to this calamity. If that means placing blame on policies directly related to the proper inspection of that bridge, then so be it. That doesn’t make it “advocacy journalism.” Demanding answers — i.e. discerning the full truth to a relevant story — is so basic a tenet of journalism it shouldn’t even qualify as “courageous.”

But in a moment when so much journalistic energy is being put into reiterating how much … the reporting journalists … care about families of the deceased and survivors, and how much they admire “heroes” like the first responders, it takes a certain amount of courage to play off the nurturing beat and repeatedly draw public attention to the series of dots connecting policies of naked self-interest and tragedy.

Good journalism, as practiced collectively by reporters, photographers, editors, and executives at newspapers and TV stations, requires a full range of coverage of an event like we’ve experienced this week. No one can dispute the all-hands-on-deck response by every such entity in town, and there has been plenty to admire. (KSTP-TV is still getting the bulk of the critical acclaim for its work, particularly its non-stop coverage the day and night of the collapse, not that the ratings have matched their effort. But it goes to show that sometimes there is an enormous advantage in NOT having to get permission from absentee ownership in New York or DC to blow out your schedule and provide full community service … as required by your license.)

While Reporting 101 dictates steady coverage of search operations — the recovery of survivors, stories of good Samaritans, and official speculation on the structural issues in the collapse — it is also entirely appropriate — make that, “vitally necessary” — to be peeling back the complex systemic reasons most likely behind the collapse, and to be doing it NOW, when public attention is focused on seeking explanations and solutions and emotions are high enough to demand the kind of action that might prevent another infrastructure disaster.

Unfortunately, at this moment in a situation like this, when a specific type of utterly routine political ideology appears so ripe a suspect for goring, the general media attitude is still to play back on blame-placing, as though harsh, indignant tones are “disrespectful” to the deceased or something. (To repeat, unlike Columbine or Virginia Tech, where debates on solutions spiral off into theories of psychology, sociology, etc., the solution here appears to be as basic as adequately maintaining — or replacing — steel and concrete.)

The standard media strategy in an assailant-free tragedy like this is to apportion roughly 50% of coverage to search and recovery logistics, 30% to feature-ish stories of valor and survival, 18% to straight stenography of political posturing, and 2% or less to what I’ll call informed indignation. This situation needs more of the latter.

Which more or less gets me back to Nick Coleman. Nick, who I consider a friend, continues to draw heat from his usual adversaries as well as this tragedy’s “This is No Time for Finger-Pointing” crowd, namely the various “No New Taxes!!!!” interest groups and the politicians who were cowed by them. (This same group will very soon morph into the, “Let’s Move On” crowd. That is their well-practiced scenario for distracting the public enough to skitter past the role their influence played in a disaster and make a seamless return to business as usual, ASAP.)

I mentioned Coleman’s Thursday column, which was kicked over to me by another friend, (but which never made the Strib’s dead tree edition, a decision in which Coleman says he had a choice). Today’s column continues along the same theme, as does his appearance on MSNBC yesterday. (Link provided — ironically enough — by Michael Brodkorb’s Minnesota Democrats Exposed. Thanks, Michael. And all of you reading here, by all means do scroll on down through the 10-watt thinking of MDE’s “No Time for Finger-Pointing” commenters.)

This is the appropriate time for indignation and demanding accountability from those whose job it is to prevent things as catastrophic and fully-preventable as this from happening.

Coleman, as we all know, takes regular rippings for being “just an angry guy.” That is so obviously short-sighted it isn’t worth a response. Unlike other metro columnists who settle into a cozy rhythm croaking about silly do-gooders or spooling out numbing, predictable pablum about injustice, Coleman sees the value in laying a two by four across a glossy head from time to time.

Personally, I admire his willingness to get in anybody’s face — Republicans, fat-ass Democrats, and even his bosses. There are a few strands of pugnacious Irish DNA in the boy. But it isn’t like he’s writing to stay on secret handshake terms with the big boys at the country club. That sort of thing doesn’t take any balls at all.

OK, so maybe he spikes his blood pressure over things you, and even I, think beneath our concern, like downtown condo towers and baseball stadiums. But his argument against public funding of the Twins’ stadium (which I admit I eventually caved on) was always within the context of misplaced priorities, and the line you can draw between misplaced priorities and that heap of concrete and steel laying in the Mississippi is direct and bold.

So say it out loud: “Coleman, the bastard, was right.”

Just like he is right now to continue hammering in to his readers’ brains the notion that some otherwise popular politicians — people who should have known better but were cowed by “taxpayer advocates” into asserting the preposterous and childish notion that you can run a 21st century government for five million people “on the cheap” — have earned a fair share of the blame for this disaster. That is an entirely valid and highly relevant point.

What’s more, I would find it refreshing to hear other high-profile local journalists, preferably a few of the “Please, please love us” TV persuasion, demand the same kind of accountability.

Don Shelby is the first to come to mind because his stature as a journalist, as opposed to mere anchor personality, is leagues beyond anyone else’s in town. But if Mike Pomeranz or Julie Nelson or Leah McLean or Jeff Passolt or Robyne Robinson want to take this opportunity to spend a little of their “celebrity” capital, go right ahead.

On a side note, a couple commenters here at The Slaughter, have misunderstood, intentionally or otherwise, my point on taxation. While , as I said, I feel a wave of nausea every time some liberal/progressive politician weasels away from talking about tax increases — primarily and largely on the 1% reaping the vast share of the benefits of the so-called “low tax” ethos — the greater weight of the blame has to fall on people like Tim Pawlenty who so flagrantly capitulated to The Taxpayers’ League “No New Taxes” pledge in order to guarantee himself both their support as well as freedom from attack by their noise machine of fellow travelers.

I can’t imagine Pawlenty ever imagined a consequence of “small government” as nightmarish as this, but now that it has happened he has taken less than 72 hours to reverse field (i.e. concede a grave mistake) and declare himself in favor of the long-overdue hike in the gas tax he politicked away so successfully last spring. (A gas tax increase will obviously impact every economic strata while having only negligible impact on Minnesota’s 1%-ers. That’s why re-writing the state income tax is a fairer, more far-reaching solution. But a few more cents a gallon — like 20 to 25 (7.5 does nothing) — at least allows for forward progress on basic maintenance.)

Blame-placing in the early hours of a tragedy becomes a virtue when the tragedy was avoidable and the processes that caused it are still in effect.