Confounding the Doomsayers
The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong.
by Ben J. Wattenberg.
Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $17.95.
There may be no cliché more beloved of contemporary journalists than the one about not blaming the messenger for bad news. It makes perfectly good sense, of course, on the assumption that the news is not the poor fellow’s fault. But if it is his fault, whom better to blame? Now comes Ben J. Wattenberg with persuasive evidence that, inadvertently or not, the messengers have been consistently getting the message wrong.
Wattenberg as a writer suffers from a tendency to cuteness that can be annoying, but as an analyst he is master of two disparate bodies of information: the national statistical accounts from 1970 to 1984, and media coverage of stories that reflect these accounts. It turns out that there is not much connection between the data and what the media have been making of them. Wattenberg’s great contribution is to document the depth and breadth of this disparity between reality and appearance.
For many years the standard journalistic interpretation of our national statistics has been that things are bad and getting worse (Vice President Bush nicely captured the flavor of that interpretation in his campaign crack, “Whine on, Harvest Moon”). By contrast, Wattenberg’s own survey of our condition, based on the same statistics, finds it flourishing. We live longer, we make more money, income is more widely distributed, life is safer, political participation more broad-based, racism dying, crime declining, and traditional values alive and well. Moreover, we are a society rapidly closing out our historic inequities and largely in control of our environment. To judge by the figures as analyzed by Wattenberg, if this is not the best of all possible worlds, it is a reasonable facsimile.
The detail and the almost druidical erudition of Wattenberg’s analysis cannot be appreciated except by immersion in it. But his argument, whatever one’s reservations about individual points, is on the whole irresistible. Indeed, one suspects that what he has to report would not come as a surprise to most Americans, who have given scant sympathy to doomsayers—at least those who have entered politics. This has been as true for relatively upbeat doomsayers like George McGovern and Walter Mondale, as for purebreds like Barry Commoner. The interesting question remains why journalists, who are among the best-educated and most affluent in American society, should be so profoundly and as it appears structurally pessimistic.
Part of the reason surely has to do with the professional obsession of journalists with bad news. (During the 1970’s we were told repeatedly that we were being assaulted as never before by chemical additives, environmental poisons, stress, and other harmful things—yet the rise in life expectancy during this period underwent its most rapid increase in the century.) Another part consists in an inability (or refusal) to differentiate between evidence of failure and evidence of success. When fewer people die of polio and tuberculosis before the age of fifty, more will die of cancer after seventy. This increase in cancer will be diagnosed as an “epidemic of cancer,” when it is rather an epidemic of longevity.
Sometimes the problem is that reality is compared to the ideal and found wanting. Thus, ignoring the dramatic narrowing of the economic gap between blacks and whites during the past decade, and the signs that the gap will inevitably narrow still further, journalists fix their eye instead on the remaining disparities. Still another problem is the tendency to sensationalize advances in science and technology that are thought to carry with them possibly harmful side-effects, and then to ignore later corrections and improvements. Wattenberg cites the example of the birth-control pill, said on the basis of early studies to be laden with a wide variety of dangerous side-effects. When scientists completed their winnowing of the evidence, the deleterious effects proved to be limited to small and easily-identified groups of subjects—e.g., those over thirty-five and heavy smokers. What is more, many side-effects actually proved beneficial, ranging from the prevention of ectopic pregnancies to the suppression of acne. This news was not considered newsworthy.
In general, then, Wattenberg presents a true bill, and the title he has given his work is an accurate one. (Moreover, he understands very well that sometimes the bad news is that the bad news is right.) But occasionally, and perhaps understandably, given the immense bias he has undertaken to correct, he is too quick to wash away bad news with a cheery statistic. His treatment of education is an example.
Wattenberg is skeptical of “A Nation at Risk,” the report of the President’s Committee on Excellence in Education. He argues that there is no such crisis of achievement as is chronicled in that work. To show that our schools are really working well, he cites the fact that between 1970 and 1982, the proportion of Americans without high-school diplomas dropped from 25 percent to 14 percent.
This, however, is a slippery number. It does not necessarily indicate improved education: it may signify little but a decline in the criteria for graduation, or an improved ability on the part of schools to “warehouse” their students all the way to a diploma. It is, in any event, an inadequate statistical antidote to the masses of statistical and other evidence suggesting the schools are failing badly at their primary task of inculcating basic literacy and numeracy. Nor is Wattenberg’s case advanced by an even more dubious statistic he cites—that between 1970 and 1983 there was an immense increase in the proportion of classroom teachers with master’s degrees. Considering that many of these degrees are granted not in fields of learning but in the mindless arcana of the educationist curriculum, this figure may in fact be a sign of decay.
Wattenberg is dismissive of another disquieting educational development, the decade-long slide in the national average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). He denatures this figure with a claim that is already the mainstay of educationists—that during this period more students have begun to take the SAT, and hence the range of abilities represented has become broader. Since the best students have always sat for the SAT, the additional test-takers must be from the lower reaches of ability.
The trouble with this explanation is that it is not based on fact: between 1973 and 1983 the number of students taking the SAT did not increase, but declined slightly. A close examination of the score profile, moreover, shows not merely a rise in the number of students scoring less than 500 points (out of a possible 800), but a substantial decrease in the number of students scoring over 500 points. The most serious drop was in students at the top: between 1973 and 1983, the number of students scoring over 700 points fell by nearly 20 percent.
Still, it is hardly shocking that a congenital optimist—and Wattenberg is self-confessedly that—should sometimes be carried over the brink. Both in its broad outlines and in most of its details the case he makes is overwhelming, and one could only wish that most educated Americans were as rigorously familiar with their society as is he. For the cost of false perceptions of reality is paid in the coin of bad policy, and in the corrosion of confidence and morale resulting from a steady diet of reported disaster. For this reason, too, Ben Wattenberg’s message—that the emperor is not so bady dressed after all—deserves a wide hearing.