Bob Franken: Fatal fatalism

Just who is it we can confidently believe, and about what? Sadly, the smart answers these days are “very few” and “not much.” No, this is not about religion and its practitioners, but about our more down-to-earth institutions, the ones that are supposed to organize our civilization. They can do that only if they are inherently credible, but our society has been poisoned by an understandable cynicism about them. Worst of all, that disillusionment is reinforced constantly, to the point that we sullenly accept, without surprise, a daily tortuous drip-drip-drip of examples where our organizations fail us or cheat us.

Where do we begin? Almost hidden in all the news and non-news about the vanished Malaysian airliner were the disclosures that General Motors, for more than a decade, buried knowledge about faulty ignition switches in some of its vehicles. GM now admits that a dozen people died as a result, although outside experts place the number much higher. Most of us are automatically inclined to assume the company is seriously low-balling.

And while we’re at it, what about the ball-dropping on the part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is supposed to intercede but didn’t.

And before we leave the auto industry, let’s make sure we heap scorn on Toyota, a corporation that has now settled with the Justice Department and agreed to pay a $1.3 billion civil penalty for falsifying information about its accelerator pedals that got stuck and sent some terrified car passengers hurtling to their deaths. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a civil penalty, not a criminal one, which has even harsher consequences for a corporation, and would have even more painful ones for those top executives who could be proven responsible for intentional actions or inactions that killed. The crime of manslaughter comes to mind. And fraud. But that’s for lawyers to decide. And let’s not even get started about our legal system. That’s too obvious.

As for Toyota, whatever the penalties, its public-relations people could claim victory. As horrific as their client’s admissions were, they were passe by the time they were announced, years after the offenses made headlines. The first thing a crisis-management person will tell you is that no matter how grotesque, stories become stale in a hurry. What might have been a major humiliation barely was noticed, so much so that the very same TV stations carrying stories about the billion-dollar fine and confession were running Toyota commercials within an hour. Those who noticed at all simply shrugged their shoulders.

It was no more a surprise than the release of two reports about official incompetence, findings released, after the fact, about tragedies that exploded into the news and then were shoved aside by the next crisis. Try hard to remember last November’s shock when a lone gunman went on a rampage at Los Angeles International Airport, killing a Transportation Security Administration officer and injuring several others before he was finally arrested. The post-mortem investigation paints a picture of an amazing lack of coordination: emergency radio systems that didn’t communicate with each other, lax security procedures — in short, chaotic mismanagement.

Or how about the deranged man who roamed the halls of the Washington Navy Yard in September, fatally shooting 12 people and injuring others before police killed him. Turns out he was a private federal contractor whose severe mental-health issues had been overlooked by those who granted him the security clearance that gave him easy access. Ho-hum, you might say.

And you’d be part of the crowd. A recent Pew poll of young people concludes that the bulk of them don’t trust our institutions. That’s good news and bad: It’s good because they have a realistic view of them, and bad because we won’t make it as a nation unless we have a credible social structure. More and more we do not.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.


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