Sunday, August 05, 2007

Res ipsa loquitur II

Do you remember the little law lecture that Spot presented a few days ago, res ipsa loquiter? The bridge fell; it speaks for itself; there was negligence.

Here's more from a article that Spot got from a post at Across the Great Divide (link in a moment):

But one engineering expert calls the bridge collapse a systematic failure -- from inspection to the politicians.

"If a bridge of this nature falls, some major mistakes were made. And I think they were systematic," said University of St. Thomas engineering professor John Abraham. [italics are Spot's]

He said there's a lot of blame to go around.

"The welding at the joints was terrible. They had extensive rust and vertical pitting. There were vertical cracks in the cross beams," said Abraham. "This report essentially says, 'Hey, either replace the bridge or do remedial repair.' And what was done was virtually nothing."

Another good statement of the doctrine of res ipsa loquiter.

Charlie, being Charlie of course, says that the problem was one of a shortage of human capital, an "invisible crack in our infrastructure." That's right, but to Spot's ear, that sounds like an apology (as Plato would have meant that word, but in Greek of course) where condemnation is called for. Charlie goes on to say that it's a result of a generation of demeaning and dis-spiriting our public servants, which made Spot feel a little better. (Not the demeaning or the dis-spiriting, but rather Charlie's identification of them.)

But the weasels swung into action as soon as the bridge fell when Michael Brodkorb advised in a comment on Minnesota Monitor not to start pointing fingers. Jeff Fecke put his, er, finger on why.

Politics are the reason that the bridge failed, not just a simple "shortage of human capital."

Brian Lambert had an excellent post on the role of the media in getting to the bottom of this entirely preventable catastrophe:

Good journalism, as practiced collectively by reporters, photographers, editors, and executives at newspapers and TV stations, requires a full range of coverage of an event like we've experienced this week. No one can dispute the all-hands-on-deck response by every such entity in town, and there has been plenty to admire. (KSTP-TV is still getting the bulk of the critical acclaim for its work, particularly its non-stop coverage the day and night of the collapse, not that the ratings have matched their effort. But it goes to show that sometimes there is an enormous advantage in NOT having to get permission from absentee ownership in New York or DC to blow out your schedule and provide full community service ... as required by your license.)

While Reporting 101 dictates steady coverage of search operations -- the recovery of survivors, stories of good Samaritans, and official speculation on the structural issues in the collapse -- it is also entirely appropriate -- make that, "vitally necessary" -- to be peeling back the complex systemic reasons most likely behind the collapse, and to be doing it NOW, when public attention is focused on seeking explanations and solutions and emotions are high enough to demand the kind of action that might prevent another infrastructure disaster.

Unfortunately, at this moment in a situation like this, when a specific type of utterly routine political ideology appears so ripe a suspect for goring, the general media attitude is still to play back on blame-placing, as though harsh, indignant tones are "disrespectful" to the deceased or something. (To repeat, unlike Columbine or Virginia Tech, where debates on solutions spiral off into theories of psychology, sociology, etc., the solution here appears to be as basic as adequately maintaining -- or replacing -- steel and concrete.)

The standard media strategy in an assailant-free tragedy like this is to apportion roughly 50% of coverage to search and recovery logistics, 30% to feature-ish stories of valor and survival, 18% to straight stenography of political posturing, and 2% or less to what I'll call informed indignation. This situation needs more of the latter.

Which more or less gets me back to Nick Coleman. Nick, who I consider a friend, continues to draw heat from his usual adversaries as well as this tragedy's "This is No Time for Finger-Pointing" crowd, namely the various "No New Taxes!!!!" interest groups and the politicians who were cowed by them. (This same group will very soon morph into the, "Let's Move On" crowd. That is their well-practiced scenario for distracting the public enough to skitter past the role their influence played in a disaster and make a seamless return to business as usual, ASAP.)

Some pretty big heads ought to roll on this one. And some of them ought to be in the media if they cannot find it within themselves to aggressively seek the truth.

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