Iconic CBS newsman Walter Cronkite’s famous tag line seems to be coming back to haunt us. “And that’s the way it is…,” were the words Walter uttered at the conclusion of each broadcast. He was telling us something important, even if the method of communication was casual and concise. His message was simple – he’d just told us what happened. What really happened. He didn’t sugar coat it, or editorialize about why it happened, or what might happen next. Nope, Walter became the most trusted man in America for the simple reason that he reported the news. That’s all.
As I watch political battles being waged today, I miss Walter more than ever. Similarly, when I hear the comments made by Monday morning quarterbacks, political wannabes, and far too many pseudo-reporters, Walter’s words come back to me again. Because they don’t seem to understand the basics, and so they confuse themselves with inventions of their own that cloud issues, foster dissent, and occasionally lead to really bad knee-jerk political action based on fear rather than knowledge, insight, or legal precedent.
My most recent flirtation with this phenomenon has to do with local politics here in my central Florida city. Our city manager recently made a public statement that has ruffled feathers. He said he does not work for the public, he works for the five city commissioners who are elected by the public. This has infuriated some, irritated others, and merely made a few shake their heads in disbelief.
The local newspaper ran an editorial that castigated the city manager for not understanding his job, and reiterated that he does indeed work for the people, as do all the employees of our city government.
That’s a beautiful story. It inspires the populace to pump their fists and proclaim, “Damn right,” as if they have a deep understanding of the inner workings of municipal government. The only problem is they’re wrong. Not just a little wrong either. They’re flat out, don’t have an idea what they’re talking about wrong. And that hurts.
Kathryn Schulz wrote, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. It’s a fascinating book which touches on a stunningly common fault of human kind. Being wrong. Or to paraphrase, Cronkite, “That’s not even close to the way it is.”
Schulz was featured in a wonderful TED Talk where she posed the question, What does it feel like to be wrong? Everybody has some idea on the topic. They find it embarrassing, humiliating, frustrating, etc. And then Schulz points out those emotional reactions are not how you react to being wrong, they are examples of how you react once you find out you’re wrong. Being wrong feels exactly, yes, exactly like being right – and so there is no embarrassment, not shame, no frustration, and maybe most importantly, no effort put into learning the truth.
Swinging around back to the city manager’s statement in my city, he is entirely correct. He does not work for the public, he works for the five city commissioners who were elected by the voters. That may not leave the reader with the same warm fuzzy feeling the newspaper’s position shoots for, but it has the distinct advantage of being true, and verifiable.
Uh oh, there’s proof of this stuff? That changes everything.
The municipal code of my city says the following; “The city commission shall appoint a city manager who shall be the administrative head of the municipal government under the direction and supervision of the city commission…” Yeah. The management chain is not up for public discussion. It’s actually written down in a document that highly trained college graduates like to call, the law. Ooooo, there’s an editor turning red right now. I can just feel it. But I can’t tell if it’s from embarrassment at being proven wrong, or a result of a blood pressure spike that might just hit a new record high.
That same municipal codes goes on to say, “The city manager shall be responsible to the city commission…” Which really sucks, because that’s an actual fact, not an opinion made up to satisfy the agenda of an editorialist with little to stand on besides the soles of his Hush Puppies.
And as good ol’ Walter Cronkite would say at this point, with emphasis on the first word, “That’s the way it is…really!