The death of American accountability
A recent Frank Rich column dealt with the almost complete lack of accountability for … well, almost everything. His primary evidence was Alan Greenspan’s retrospective performance evaluation: right 70 percent of the time. Maybe, but that other 30 percent was a killer. Rich continues:
This syndrome is hardly limited to the financial sector. The Vatican hierarchy and its American apologists blame the press, anti-Catholic bigots and “petty gossip” for a decades-long failure to police the church’s widespread criminal culture of child molestation. Michael Steele, the G.O.P. chairman, has tried to duck criticism for his blunders by talking about his “slimmer margin” of error as a black man. New York’s dynamic Democratic duo of political scandal, David Paterson and Charles Rangel, have both attributed their woes to newspapers like The Times, not their own misbehavior.
Rich treats this as a natural consequence of today’s overheated, short attention-span media culture; basically, if you commit a giant screwup, but can spin the media to give you a pass – at least until it moves on to the next crisis, which won’t take long – then you’re in the clear. Your place in history is safe. And this works! Even “disgraced” politicians such as Rod Blagojevich don’t disappear anymore, they just move on to reality TV. (I have an ongoing argument with a journalist friend about whether the word “disgraced” is overused in media references to scandal-plagued politicians. He says “disgraced” is simply too strong a word, reflecting a kind of permanent, quasi-religious rejection by society, and thus inaccurate. I think appropriate in some cases – Bernie Madoff comes to mind. But events are proving my friend right. Today you can be “disgraced” one day and back in the thick of things the next. The word is practically meaningless.)
But I think the accountability problem goes beyond the usual short attention spans. It reflects a more fundamental shift in our political-media culture – and a dangerous one. It’s American institutions, not individuals, that are to blame here.
Actually, we no longer live in a world of individuals and institutions, but of interlocking systems. Once it was possible to determine where the buck stopped. No longer.
I’m referring mainly to government, media and to some extent private enterprise as it interacts with the first two. Ever-more complex relationships between institutions are blurring the borders of responsibility, and often making accountability impossible. When accountability breaks down, it gets very hard to self-correct.
Consider, for example, the growth of government outsourcing, in which responsibilities are distributed among private firms. In the military, where contracting is endemic, it is often impossible to tell who contracted for what, or who is responsible when something goes wrong, which it often does. See, for instance, Blackwater. Unfortunately, it’s to the advantage of everyone involved (except the taxpayer) to have muddled lines of responsibility – that way, no one important has to take a fall.
Or consider the nexus between business, Congress and the executive branch, the permanent class of lobbyists Washington depends on to draft legislation, negotiate regulatory disputes, et al. Is it any wonder that we get disastrous systemic breakdowns such as the Big Branch Mine disaster – in which the whole concept of government regulation seems like a farce, a not-so-secret agreement between the principals to go through the motions while accomplishing nothing?
Or consider the great tech-driven transformation of the media now. Old, big institutions see their credibility erode, as a thousand smaller, scrappier players emerge. In a given news cycle, they are indistinct: they swarm around events based on news value and/or their own shifting, shared perspectives. The media also fragments ideologically, blurring the distinctions between institutions thought to be different in kind -notably, Fox News forming a nexus of common interest with the Republican Party.
Finally, consider also the big problems we face. Climate change requires old institutions to work together in new ways and assume new responsibilities. That this fails to happen isn’t surprising. The failure is collective. No one takes the fall because no one is responsible to begin with.
This is an essential problem for journalism too. The “Watergate” model of investigative reporting, in which bad actors are exposed and expunged from a system that still works, is inadequate to deal with the complexities here. Some bad actors, sure. But also whole systems gone bad and the responsibility diffused across institutions. No easy way to tell these stories, but we should find ways to do just that.
Clay Shirky touched on some of these issues a few weeks ago writing about the inability of old media institutions to adapt to changing technology, drawing on the work of Joseph Tainter:
Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.
I don’t know that this is exactly the right way to look at media (here’s a convincing rebuttal). But it’s increasingly clear that our “systems” are simultaneously both too complex and not sophisticated enough to deal with the problems at hand. The disappearance of clear-cut mechanisms of accountability is just the most obvious sign.
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