Cheer Up

Posted: Apr 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Radio station 1010 WINS in New York City advertises, ?You give us 22 minutes, we?ll give you the world.? The whole world? It?s amazing how they can fit all that information into such a brief time. In a similar vein, the 11 o?clock news never runs past 11:30, and the three network newscasts never run over their half-hour time frame.

This can be done because newscasts are predictable. They focus on the same sorts of stories -- murder, mayhem, natural disasters -- and they tell those stories the same way, by focusing on the negative. Good news usually ends up on the cutting room floor.
Consider Iraq.

Raise your hand if you can name the new Iraqi president. He?s Jalal Talabani. On April 6 he became the country?s first Kurdish president, and in fact the first non-Arab president of an Arab nation.

Then he faded from view, being replaced on page 1 by more typical stories, such as the Washington Post?s April 19 report titled, ?The Grim Reaper, Riding a Firetruck in Iraq;
Marines Recount Dramatic Assault At Base Near Syria.?

It?s true that Talabani?s post is symbolic. But what?s critical here is that he wanted it. Kurds celebrated his selection, and opposition Sunnis and Shiites allowed it to go forward. Those are all great signs, because they prove the Kurds are committed to remaining a part of Iraq, and that their Arab neighbors want them to remain. That should be news.

After all, just last year the press was wondering if Iraq could remain united. A May story in Newsday, for example, worried ?about a new kind of civil war between the country?s two main ethnic groups: Arabs and Kurds.? Maybe those reports of Iraq?s impending demise were premature.
The problem is that while the media did a good job covering the horse race of the Iraqi election -- remember all the purple-stained fingers? -- once the ink wore off, so did the media?s interest.

Reporters forgot that democracy is messy and often slow, and that it sometimes takes weeks or even months to get big things accomplished. They resorted to stories like the April 2 Washington Post report that began, ?The protracted delay in naming a new Iraqi government has alarmed the country?s powerful Shiite Muslim clergy, who worry that growing popular frustration may endanger the government?s legitimacy.?

In fact, the new government has legitimacy because of the length of those talks. Genuine power sharing involves compromise on all sides, and that?s clearly what was going on in Iraq. Such negotiations are less photogenic than a car bomb, but in the long run will prove much more consequential.

The media?s focus on the negative infects us at home, as well. That was evident in our supposed lack of flu vaccine last fall.

In a normal year, less than 20 percent of us get a flu shot. That means that, with the 55 million doses of vaccine that were available, we should have been all right. Instead, we endured a full-blown media panic.

Front-page stories in the Chicago Tribune told of people traveling hundreds of miles to get inoculated and pointed out that, while the Chicago Bears football team received shots, the ?common man? couldn?t get one.

Now, months later, the panic has died down and media outlets are quietly noting the country actually has more flu shots than we can use. Tens of thousands of doses will be discarded at the end of this month.

The real story isn?t that humankind is vulnerable to diseases -- it?s that we?ve done such an amazing job of overcoming them. The spread of infectious disease has been in decline for decades and is expected to continue to fall. Total mortality from infections has dropped from 800 per 100,000 people in 1900 to just 50 per 100,000 in 2000. And once-feared diseases including cholera, typhoid fever and smallpox have been virtually wiped out. That?s a key reason humans are living longer, healthier and happier lives.

Unfortunately, covering the news is always going to require journalists to report bad news. For example, no television station is ever going to send a reporter to provide live updates on a river that?s not overflowing its banks.

Still, too much good news is going unreported. In our rush to cram the world into 30 minutes, we?re missing the bigger picture. Life today is good and, for most of us, it?s getting better. Too bad we?ll never see film of that at 11.