Let's hope news media re-awaken before U.S. infrastructure crumbles|
Georgia Online News Service
This is a test. This is a test of your national media. Society needs a wake-up call. Thus far, the media has failed. Fortunately, the new administration knows the score – "D" (see below) – and wants to spend money to create jobs and spur the economy.
The test began in 2005 when the decidedly unsexy American Society of Civil Engineers last issued a report grading the nation's infrastructure.
Overall, the stuff that makes our society tick got a D. In 1997 the grade was D+. Our landfills and recycling effort made the best grade, a slightly better than average C+. Our navigable waterways, sewage treatment facilities and drinking water nearly failed with D minuses.
Don't remember either of those reports? Me neither. Maybe we would have heard about them if a drunken celebrity had delivered them abusively to the arresting officer during a late night stop.
But that didn't happen and the media refused to connect the dots:
– The Northeast goes dark, exposing the electric grid's fragility.
– Despite the warnings from civil engineers, known substandard levies collapse, swamping a great American city.
A recently inspected steam pipe explodes, wiping out a block of Lexington Avenue in front of the storied Chrysler building in New York City.
And, fully laden aircraft sit on tarmacs for 12 hours because the airlines and the airports have not built infrastructure to keep up with demand.
The best reporting on our crumbling infrastructure can be found – of all places – on the magazine Popular Mechanics' Web site, where author Stephen Flynn's editorial "A Brittle Nation" appeared shortly after the Minneapolis tragedy. Flynn points out that we are like spoiled grandchildren who inherit a beautiful mansion but party every night with no thought to maintenance and upkeep. He notes that the nation's infrastructure was built in two bursts, one in the 1920s and '30s and the other in the '50s and '60s. Since then, it has essentially been ignored.
You see, it's like Christmas: Attention is lavished on new, sexy toys.
Then there's nothing left for the hum-drum repairs, paint and polish that the old ones require.
Here's a case in point: The Republican governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, in 2005 vetoed an $8 billion infrastructure bill, so the Legislature went back to work and cut it in half. Still, the governor vetoed it, saying the state couldn't afford such "overreaching," but somehow he found a way to use public money to fund a half-billion dollar baseball stadium. Get it: shiny new toy – rusty old bridge.
Former President Reagan rings in my ears: "Government is not the solution," he said in his inaugural. "Government is the problem." His political descendants, the Grover Norquists of the world, want to starve government until it is "small enough to drown in a bathtub." Their legacy is the squandering of our inherited infrastructure, refusing to raise taxes for anything – not even war – and dedication to privatizing the pivotal underpinnings of society.
Yet it takes a tragedy as horrible as a freeway bridge collapse in a major American city to get our media's attention. A troubling and absurd conversation we will now have is whether we should privatize the public infrastructure. This, of course is one of the neo–cons' goals, but the underlying politics are rarely explored in news coverage.
The dollars are calculable; but the long-term effect of having for-profit companies running everything from prisons to roadways is not. You would think that is the story. The mainstream media, as it does with political campaigns, will cover the superficial horse race rather than the issues that define it. The public will only hear whether they have the votes – not whether it is good policy.
The infrastructure is largely out of sight, both figuratively and literally. It resides underground as sewers, water and gas pipes and electrical conduits. It is the roadway we drive, the water we drink, the power we consume, the control system for our airways, the safety net for our food and medicine. It is so omnipresent as to be invisible.
So we had a summer with the most delays in the history of commercial air travel; a ruptured steam pipe; a multiple-fatality bridge collapse – these things are finally waking the media up and getting it to ask the politicians some tough questions. Let's hope they keep the heat on our policy makers before the next hurricane, the next major power outage, the next major air disaster or the next collapsed bridge.
Jon Sinton is publisher of the Georgia Online News Service, and was the founding president of Air America Radio. [full bio]