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Should American Reporters Be More Like South Africa’s?

This February interview of Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo by Chris Barron of The Times is making the rounds, thanks to Radley Balko, Andrew Sullivan, and many others.    The set-up is that Joburg is going to be hosting the World Cup and is being touted as a “world-class city.”

amos-masondo-interviewIs Joburg ready for the World Cup?

I think we are.

What about the potholes?

We are addressing that problem.

What about the trenches that are left open for months for people to fall into?

Again, that’s one of the big problems.

What about the broken traffic lights?

It’s being addressed in an ongoing way.

What about the street lights that don’t work?

You keep on mentioning these things one by one. And my answer is an honest one, to say yes, there are gaps, and we are working on addressing the problems.

What about the missing street signs?

The matter has been raised with the mayoral committee by the executive director of 2010. And, again, a commitment has been made that we’ll be upgrading these in the next two to three months.

What about the litter?

The city’s much cleaner than it used to be.

There’s still a lot of rubbish around, though, isn’t there?

There is a lot of rubbish around. Pikitup is working on a programme that seeks to mobilise communities.

What about the blocked stormwater drains?

Yes, because it rains quite heavily. Some of the problems … have been exposed and we are addressing them.

There’s much more at the link but you get the point.

The consensus seems to be that American journalists should conduct interviews in this manner, rather than being stenographers for politicians.   But I’m not sure that they don’t.  Many American reporters are quite tenacious in interviewing politicians.

The difference, I think, is the politicians rather than the journalists.  Most American mayors would decline to participate in an interview with someone who’s going to grill them in this fashion.  Further, most big city mayors and other seasoned politicians are simply better at giving non-answer answers to reporters’ questions.

Further, it’s worth noting that, for the most part, we tend not to have a lot of open trenches, broken streetlights, blocked storm drains, and strewn litter in our cities.  Goodness knows we’ve got our problems with bad politicians.  But they’re a whole different kind of bad than is typical in the developing world.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mithras says:

    The journalism angle buries the real story here: Joburg sounds like a libertarian paradise to me. Where else can you be free from the tyranny of walking under government-run streetlights at night? What about your freedom to stumble down a dark street and fall into an open trench if you choose to? And don’t get me started on the creeping totalitarianism of this whole “traffic light” thing. Next the commissars will try to tell you where you can and can’t park!

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  2. john personna says:

    American reporters play dumb. They pretend to accept outrageous claims, while only making token mention of “the opposing view.”

    My memory of the way it should be done was a BBC interview with a development minister in Dubai. When the beeb’s reporter replied with “but isn’t it true” every one was a home run. His responses were both factually true and on target.

    Who does that? The (strangely hated) Mathews tries, but most don’t. If a “personality” thinks it is their job to provide dissent, in American culture they are more likely to do that through more outrageous counter-claims.

    For instance, sticking on “half of all Americans don’t pay income tax” rather than making a targeted and factual claim about total tax burden :-/

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  3. Franklin says:

    I had a brief stay in Britain and flipped on the news. My co-worker and I were both struck immediately by how well the BBC journalists conduct interviews. Yup, we need more of that.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    My co-worker and I were both struck immediately by how well the BBC journalists conduct interviews. Yup, we need more of that.

    Two explanations come to mind. First, BBC is government owned, which means no profit motive. Second, BBC likely employs mostly “OxBridge” graduates, which emphasize rhetoric much more highly than American counterparts.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    For instance, sticking on “half of all Americans don’t pay income tax” rather than making a targeted and factual claim about total tax burden :-/

    I’m not sure who’s doing that. The 54% stat on income tax is interesting in and of itself, but every reasonable discussion of it I’ve seen includes caveats about other taxes.

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  6. Triumph says:

    Further, it’s worth noting that, for the most part, we tend not to have a lot of open trenches, broken streetlights, blocked storm drains, and strewn litter in our cities.

    Dude, there is stuff like this all over.

    Here is an example from B. Hussein’s home state, Cairo IL.

    It makes South AFrica look like a cakewalk

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  7. James Joyner says:

    So, a dilapidated building — which, granted, is an eyesore — in a podunck town is equivalent to major safety hazards in a country’s most important city?

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  8. john personna says:

    I’m not sure who’s doing that. The 54% stat on income tax is interesting in and of itself, but every reasonable discussion of it I’ve seen includes caveats about other taxes.

    Are caveats enough?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we moved the center of the discussion to total tax burden?

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  9. James Joyner says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we moved the center of the discussion to total tax burden?

    I think both discussions are useful. The direct income tax is a different thing than the payroll tax or sales taxes, even though they’re all burdens.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    American reporters are less informed than BBC reporters. They’re also more deferential, more thoroughly co-opted by the establishment, thoroughly cowed and potty-trained by politicians.

    And then there’s the fact that the American public is deeply stupid on politics, addicted to fact-free partisan bluster.

    Interesting though, is it not, that the government-run network does a far better job of grilling government than do our privately-owned media? The closest competitor is NPR which is government-subsidized. The free market doesn’t seem to do a very good job with the dissemination of news.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    The free market doesn’t seem to do a very good job with the dissemination of news.

    I think it’s because there’s a very limited audience for it, which is why we need to subsidize PBS and NPR. Commercial news outlets did a great job back in the day when people had no choice but to turn off the TV or watch. But now that there are 200 other channels….

    Given their druthers, most people apparently prefer fluff, “human interest” stories, salacious gossip, and the like. And they get what they demand, since they’re the customer.

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  12. Solomon2 says:

    American reporters work to preserve access to sources. If you’re too rude you often don’t get access. No access means no story; no story soon means no job. Hence the importance of supporting independent journalists and writers.

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  13. TangoMan says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we moved the center of the discussion to total tax burden?

    If you do something silly like that then you might as well take the last little step and include the burden of buying car insurance, buying clothing, buying food.

    Social Security and Medicare tax burdens are not designed as general revenue measures. They have wide spread legitimacy because they are viewed as forced savings/insurance plans for one’s retirement.

    Taxes are generally viewed as being used for the general welfare. If you want to include FICA taxes in that metric then why not other burdens that each of encounter in our lives that are dedicated towards improving our lives in specific ways?

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  14. Clovis says:

    There is also the problem with our politicians filibustering limited time interviews and switching subjects. If a reporter tries to get the questions in, or back on topic, the reporter is called disrespectful. Or ignored.

    Then, poof, no more access for you.

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  15. john personna says:

    Tango, there are two arguably valid ways of looking at Social Security. Neither really invalidates the other. We can look at the Social Security trust fund and say it is well funded enough to treat as a separate entity. Or, we could validly just do cash accounting on the government (all mandated fees and services) overall.

    Clothing is certainly not like that. It is neither mandated nor provided by the government.

    Now, what about Medi*? Are the medical programs arguably funded by a valid trust fund? Until they have a trust fund that works, I’d say not. Right now their obligations are more general, and so should really be lumped with general government debt.

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  16. TangoMan says:

    Tango, there are two arguably valid ways of looking at Social Security. Neither really invalidates the other. We can look at the Social Security trust fund and say it is well funded enough to treat as a separate entity. Or, we could validly just do cash accounting on the government (all mandated fees and services) overall.

    Clothing is certainly not like that. It is neither mandated nor provided by the government.

    Now, what about Medi*? Are the medical programs arguably funded by a valid trust fund? Until they have a trust fund that works, I’d say not. Right now their obligations are more general, and so should really be lumped with general government debt.

    I’ve been on-side with Dave and Steve on the issue of unfunded obligations and have been making that argument for nearly a decade. This however is orthogonal to my point. I’m arguing about how the public views these taxes and how they’re legitimized. The argument against means testing these programs goes back prior to their implementation and that’s because a means test would create the impression that these programs are welfare and that designation would delegitimize them.

    So, we’re left in a bit of a tricky bind. People are paying their FICA taxes because they’re under the impression that they’re contributing to old age security and medical care programs. In fact, for medicare they’ll eventually end up as de facto welfare beneficiaries. In no case can it be argued that FICA taxes are taxes designed (yes I know what happens to the actual cash flow and the mythical “lock box” and that’s not the design aspect I’m arguing) to deliver “excess contributions” to be spent on general welfare. The tax burden of FICA taxes shouldn’t be included in the total tax burden because the FICA taxes won’t even cover the combined return via benefits that will be directed to the typical senior citizen. In other words, these taxes are only partially prefunding the retirement requirements of the people paying these taxes.

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  17. TeeJay says:

    As a long-time resident of Johannesburg, what the interview really highlights is this: Political hacks appointed to jobs they cannot do, unable to maintain and deliver basic municipal services, but just brilliant at “racial transformation”, visions, change management and marketing.

    For a real doozy, though, it’s worth looking at the political cartoon by Zapiro that depicted our President Zuma about to rape the Justice System. Makes that Muslim cartoon thing look very tame.

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  18. john personna says:

    The tax burden of FICA taxes shouldn’t be included in the total tax burden because the FICA taxes won’t even cover the combined return via benefits that will be directed to the typical senior citizen. In other words, these taxes are only partially prefunding the retirement requirements of the people paying these taxes.

    It depends on what you are comparing to. If the tax rate is going to be compared with another country’s, in which old-age benefits are paid by “tax”, then the exclusion is misleading.

    As I think I’ve said, I prefer total tax burden, because it is the only thing that is comparable both across countries, and across many decades.

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  19. john personna says:

    Shorter: “50% don’t pay income tax” is perfectly meaningless, when you get right down to it.

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