9/12/2005

False Impressions Are Lasting Impressions

This morning on the Today Show, Tim Russert (with barely concealed glee) was discussing the President's falling job approval poll numbers. He made some atypically dumb remarks, including saying that the "hard-core Democrats will never vote for Bush" -- as if he were going to be running again! Anyhow, the thing that really triggered my attention was his comment about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the President and the perception that the federal response has been too slow. Russert said, "First impressions are lasting impressions."

That's true. But it's also true that first impressions are often false. From "Dewey Defeats Truman" to "New Orleans Dodged a Bullet," the first news reports we get are frequently filled with inaccuracies. The general knowledge of the public is filled with things that aren't true. People "know" that George Bush 41 didn't know what a supermarket scanner was or that Bill Clinton closed down LAX just so he could get a haircut on Air Force One. Neither of these is true, yet the "knowledge" remains. The same is true of the current disaster.

Everyone "knows" that the federal response to Katrina was slow. Yet how many people can name one specific thing the federal government should have done but didn't? (As a hint, "get stuff there faster" is not an answer.) The early estimates that the death toll might reach or even exceed 10,000 now turn out to have (thankfully) been greatly exaggerated. But much of people's perceptions of the tragedy have forever been set by that reported number.

Everybody who watched Shepard Smith or Geraldo Rivera (my sympathies) or Anderson Cooper "knows" that FEMA failed to deliver relief supplies to the Superdome--but how many of them know it was because of "Hamlet" Blanco's refusal to allow them to deliver the relief that was there and ready to go. Everybody "knows" the evil Republicans cut the budget which is why the levees weren't high enough--yet how many know the first levee that broke was recently strengthened, or that Louisiana gets more money every year from the Army Corps of Engineers than any other state---hundreds of millions more!

Changing the mindset of the nation after these false early reports is difficult if not impossible. The accepted conventional wisdom becomes what people internalize and hold as fact. And that's really too bad. It leaves us ill-prepared to make long term improvements for the future if we do not understand what happened in the past. One final note...today's politicians (of both parties) are addicted to polling data and hardly make a move without it. They poll everything, including famously where Bill Clinton should go on vacation!--yet what sort of government does that leave us? Asking the blind for guidance through the darkness is not wise. As Jesus said, "Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?" (Luke 6:39)

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