There might be no cliche more beloved of modern journalists than the one about not blaming the messenger for bad…

Constarting the DoomsayersThe Good News is the Bad News is Wrong.

You are watching: The good news is the bad news is wrong

by Ben J. Wattenberg.Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $17.95.

There might be no cliché more beloved of contemporary journalists than the one around not blaming the messenger for bad news. It makes perfectly good sense, of course, on the assumption that the news is not the bad fellow’s fault. But if it is his fault, whom better to blame? Now comes Ben J. Wattenberg with persuasive proof that, inadvertently or not, the messengers have actually been repetitively acquiring the message wrong.

Wattenberg as a writer suffers from a tendency to cuteness that have the right to be annoying, yet as an analyst he is grasp of two dispaprice bodies of information: the nationwide statistical accounts from 1970 to 1984, and media coverage of stories that reflect these accounts. It transforms out that tright here is not a lot connection in between the data and also what the media have been making of them. Wattenberg’s good contribution is to document the depth and also breadth of this disparity between fact and also appearance.


For many kind of years the standard journalistic interpretation of our national statistics has been that things are poor and also getting worse (Vice President Bush nicely recorded the flavor of that interpretation in his project crack, “Whine on, Harvest Moon”). By contrast, Wattenberg’s own survey of our problem, based upon the very same statistics, finds it prospering. We live longer, we make more money, income is more commonly dispersed, life is safer, political participation more broad-based, racism dying, crime decreasing, and also standard values alive and well. Moreover, we are a society rapidly closing out our historical inequities and also mostly in manage of our environment. To judge by the numbers as analyzed by Wattenberg, if this is not the ideal of all possible civilizations, it is a reasonable facsimile.


The detail and also the virtually druidical erudition of Wattenberg’s evaluation cannot be appreciated except by immersion in it. But his argument, whatever before one’s appointments around individual points, is on the whole irresistible. Indeed, one suspects that what he hregarding report would certainly not come as a surpincrease to many Americans, that have actually offered scant sympathy to doomsayers—at leastern those who have gotten in national politics. This has actually been as true for reasonably upbeat doomsayers choose George McGovern and also Wtransform Mondale, as for purebreds choose Barry Commoner. The amazing question continues to be why journalists, who are among the best-educated and also a lot of well-off in American society, have to be so profoundly and as it appears structurally pessimistic.

Part of the factor sudepend has to carry out through the expert obsession of journalists through poor news. (Throughout the 1970’s we were told repetitively that we were being assaulted as never before by chemical additives, ecological poisons, stress, and also various other harmful things—yet the increase in life expectations throughout this period underwent its a lot of fast increase in the century.) Anvarious other part is composed in an incapability (or refusal) to distinguish in between proof of faiattract and evidence of success. When fewer civilization die of polio and also tuberculosis prior to the age of fifty, even more will certainly die of cancer after seventy. This increase in cancer will certainly be diagnosed as an “epidemic of cancer,” as soon as it is quite an epidemic of longevity.

Sometimes the difficulty is that fact is compared to the appropriate and also discovered wanting. Therefore, ignoring the dramatic narrowing of the economic gap between blacks and whites during the past decade, and also the signs that the gap will certainly inevitably narrow still additionally, journalists fix their eye instead on the staying disparities. Still another trouble is the tendency to sensationalize advancements in scientific research and also innovation that are thought to bring through them perhaps harmful side-effects, and also then to ignore later corrections and also renovations. Wattenberg cites the instance of the birth-control pill, sassist on the basis of early on studies to be laden through a wide variety of dangerous side-effects. When scientists completed their winnowing of the proof, the deleterious effects confirmed to be limited to tiny and also easily-figured out groups of subjects—e.g., those over thirty-five and hefty smokers. What is more, many kind of side-impacts actually showed helpful, varying from the prevention of ectopic pregnancies to the suppression of acne. This news was not taken into consideration newsworthy.

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In basic, then, Wattenberg presents a true bill, and the title he has offered his job-related is an exact one. (Moreover, he understands very well that sometimes the negative news is that the bad news is best.) But periodically, and probably understandably, offered the enormous predisposition he has actually undertaken to correct, he is too quick to wash away bad news via a cheery statistic. His therapy of education is an example.

Wattenberg is cynical of “A Nation at Risk,” the report of the President’s Committee on Excellence in Education. He suggests that there is no such crisis of success as is chronicled in that occupational. To present that our institutions are really working well, he cites the fact that between 1970 and 1982, the proportion of Americans without high-institution diplomas dropped from 25 percent to 14 percent.

This, yet, is a slippery number. It does not necessarily indicate boosted education: it may signify little bit but a decrease in the criteria for graduation, or an enhanced capability on the component of institutions to “warehouse” their students all the way to a diploma. It is, in any type of occasion, an insufficient statistical antidote to the masses of statistical and various other evidence arguing the schools are failing badly at their main job of inculcating basic proficiency and also numeracy. Nor is Wattenberg’s case advanced by an even more dubious statistic he cites—that between 1970 and also 1983 there was an tremendous boost in the proportion of classroom teachers with master’s degrees. Considering that many of these levels are granted not in fields of finding out however in the mindless arcana of the educationist curriculum, this number might in truth be a sign of degeneration.


Wattenberg is dismissive of an additional disquieting educational advance, the decade-long slide in the nationwide average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). He denatures this number through a insurance claim that is currently the mainremain of educationists—that during this duration even more students have actually started to take the SAT, and also hence the range of abilities represented has come to be bigger. Since the ideal students have actually always sat for the SAT, the extra test-takers need to be from the reduced reaches of capacity.

The trouble through this explacountry is that it is not based upon fact: between 1973 and 1983 the number of students taking the SAT did not increase, yet decreased slightly. A close examination of the score profile, moreover, mirrors not simply a increase in the variety of students scoring much less than 500 points (out of a possible 800), but a substantial decrease in the number of students scoring over 500 points. The many serious drop remained in students at the top: in between 1973 and 1983, the variety of students scoring over 700 points fell by virtually 20 percent.

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Still, it is hardly shocking that a congenital optimist—and Wattenberg is self-confessedly that—need to periodically be lugged over the brink. Both in its broad outlines and also in most of its details the situation he makes is overwhelming, and also one could just wish that a lot of educated Americans were as rigorously familiar via their society as is he. For the expense of false perceptions of truth is phelp in the coin of poor policy, and also in the corrosion of confidence and morale resulting from a stable diet of reported disaster. For this factor, too, Ben Wattenberg’s message—that the emperor is not so bady dressed after all—deserves a large hearing.