Why We’re Freaking Out

The great American ports debate has seen the Bush administration’s political enemies explode with pent-up schadenfreude. It had been building since 2001 among sensible people of both parties who wanted to jeer the White House for handling things with such blundering arrogance but couldn’t because those things–the wanton bloodletting in Iraq, the half-assed war against terrorism–were too grim for gloating. Besides, the White House ex-celled at denying its blunders and questioning the spine and patriotism of anyone who tried to make an issue of them.

But the ports debacle is different. It’s given America a taste of what F. Scott Fitzgerald said only first-rate minds are capable of: holding opposed ideas at the same time and functioning. The opposed ideas are that Bush looks ridiculous and that, even so, he might be right.

Not every intellect has been able to get itself around both propositions–noticeably within the punditry. It’s the nature of pundits to examine a simple issue and insist on complications only they can see. In the case of the ports, despite obvious complexities, many of the same sages saw it as their duty to deny them all and cut through what they dismissed as the crap. “This Dubai port deal has unleashed a kind of collective mania we haven’t seen in decades,” thundered the New York Times’s David Brooks from the right, identifying the mania as “nativist, isolationist mass hysteria.” From the left, the same paper’s Nicholas Kristof agreed: “If we want to encourage Arab modernization, we should be approving this deal–not engaging in quasi-racist scaremongering.”

The Washington Post offered a one-note response to the deal’s critics: sneering super-iority. The deal–Dubai Ports World taking over Britain’s Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, which has managed ports in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami, and Philadelphia–was actually “fairly stale news [that] had been reported on extensively in the financial press,” the editorial page sniffed on February 22.

But when it was fresh, this news wasn’t reported in the Post. So here’s a question for the paper: should coverage of a multinational, multibillion-dollar business deal reflect its own cosmopolitan assessment of the deal as no big thing, or the shock and bewilderment the public would feel if it were let in on what was going on? A newspaper has no business trying to shame people for not knowing what it never told them. The president himself didn’t know the deal went down.

The Tribune distinguished itself last Sunday with coverage of the Dubai deal that respected the story’s complexities. The page-one story by Susan Chandler and Stephen Franklin observed acutely that “the backlash can be connected to a deeper fear that extends far beyond terrorism.” An economist with Deloitte Research was then quoted: “It’s a reaction to globalization. It’s almost the fear that foreigners in general are going to take over the American economy.”

Exactly. Mysterious Middle Easterners were not only taking over our ports but taking them over from the British. We hadn’t been running them in the first place, and who knew? Given prior reporting that our ports are the Achilles’ heel of national security, the twin revelations turned morose unease into outrage. Foreigners who are at least familiar to us were handing off our ports to foreigners whose banks–as the Tribune reminded us–had financed indoor ski resorts in the desert and laundered money for 9/11 terrorists. It was one of those moments when the world reveals itself to the hoi polloi as a place that operates on two levels–one for kids who join the marines (see reporter Russell Working’s story about his stepson in the Sunday Tribune) and another for kids who become international bankers.

Supposedly the Dubai Ports World deal was vetted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, on which sit Bush’s secretaries of defense and the treasury, his attorney general, and the heads of various departments and agencies. That so-called oversight was good enough for a lot of the deal’s apologists. But David Greising took a close look at CFIUS, again in the Sunday Tribune, and was anything but reassuring. He called it “an agency with tons of power at its disposal but little appetite for using it,” an agency that operates in “extreme secrecy” and almost never questions a deal. He said it’s “inert.”

Monday’s Tribune brought more typical commentary: from Charles Krauthammer, who could see two sides (“On this, the Democrats are rank hypocrites. But even hypocrites can be right”), and Dennis Byrne, who could not (“A measure of how idiotic the attacks on this deal have become is the lashing that the Washington Post, always glad to jump on the Bush administration, applied to the deal’s critics in an editorial, ‘Port security humbug'”). Both writers showed more concern for the feelings of distant emirs than for those of the American people.

I e-mailed my high school friend Don Steele, a Mississippi River pilot who guides ships into and out of the port in New Orleans. More than most of us, Steele thinks about being blown to bits. “I am a Republican,” he offered by way of preamble when he wrote back.

“I am coming down the river on a tanker with 350,000 bbls of gasoline and jet fuel (18,200,000 gals) and I have to worry about Yellow or Orange, give me a break,” he wrote. The DPW deal confused him, just as it did Americans who live a thousand miles from salt water, and his first reaction was, “They are selling off another piece of the United States.” Then he asked himself, “Are they going to bring in the security systems that each port has been telling Homeland Security they cannot afford?” He doubted it. “I do not believe that we will ever know what comes into the United States in the thousands of containers that flow through these ports each day. Loading and unloading these ships and barges, then loading them on trains and trucks to move to their destination is expensive, and as we all know time is money.”

Even Steele, who pilots ships in and out of our ports, wasn’t sure who owns them, who runs them, and who’d run them next. But he found it hard to believe port management could be kept away from port security.

Dubai Ports World will only manage, not own, our ports, the deal’s champions insist. But mere managers have rights and opportunities–we don’t own Guantanamo.

Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way

The end of the Olympics brought a blizzard of articles wondering how we could fix what’s wrong with the Games. The real question being asked was this: what’s wrong with the Olympics as programming on American television? One online poll asked the public if the Games need to become more like reality TV. As if they weren’t already.

NBC offered reality skillfully edited for later presentation, with the Shani Davis-Chad Hedrick saga giving the two weeks of coverage its dramatic spine. The saga suffered noticeably in NBC’s telling from inattention to any detail that would dilute the drama, and the papers, with story-line needs of their own, didn’t do much better.

After both Davis and Hedrick were aced out in the 1,500-meter speed-skating competition by an Italian, NBC reported that Davis’s Olympics were over, but Hedrick would return for the 10,000 meters. So why, a day later, did NBC announce as a dramatic new development that Davis had decided not to skate the 10,000 meters after all?

My Olympics hero is “Tribune Olympic Bureau” reporter Michael Kellams, who stepped up in the February 24 Tribune and actually made something clear. “Because Davis finished seventh in speedskating’s 5,000 meters,” he reported, “he was automatically entered in Friday’s 10,000. But he never had intended to race and formally withdrew.”

The media’s unwillingness to let facts get in the way of the story had revealed itself as soon as Hedrick won the 5,000 early in the Games. His dream of five gold medals was reachable only if Davis joined Hedrick in the team pursuit, a new event Davis had no interest in. (The Olympics ended without anyone bothering to tell me how long a race the team pursuit even is. It turns out to be 3,200 meters, a much better distance for Hedrick than Davis.) Davis preferred to save himself for his next individual event, the 1,000 meters.

Naturally, NBC and the rest of the media took Hedrick’s side–the five-gold quest made reporters’ jobs easy. I’m not sure how deeply the rest of the world cares about the ageless conflict between individualism and team play, but to a lot of Americans the choice is profound, and when the team name is “America” it’s also easy. Davis suffered in the coverage as a bitter loner under his mother’s thumb.

One of the terms in Roger Ebert’s little movie glossary is “idiot plot,” for a story line that requires all the characters to ignore the obvious. Hedrick versus Davis was an idiot plot. The moral drama depended on the media–led by NBC–refusing to deal with the obvious question of which other races Hedrick would have to win to collect those five gold medals. One of them, sure enough, was the 1,000 meters–Davis’s strongest race and Hedrick’s weakest. If he’d goaded Davis into the team pursuit, Hedrick would have boosted his own chances of winning not just one more gold medal but two. The other would have been in the event Davis had dreamed of winning since he was a kid.

The U.S. didn’t place in the team pursuit, and five golds for Hedrick were no longer a prospect. That’s when media sentiment swung Davis’s way. It swung because–well, because if you don’t swing you dangle. Then Davis won the 1,000 and followed it up by giving NBC such a rude interview he lost his new fair-weather fans. But nothing can kill a necessary story line. Davis’s explanation the next day that he’d been terse because he had to take a leak got big play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images.