The Outstater

December 18, 2022

We Have Questions

I’M NOT PROUD OF IT but I sent another of my ineffectual, never-to-see-the-light-of-day screeds to the local newspaper, this one asking why coverage of the city council couldn’t include at least a thumbnail account of the dissenting votes.

What set me off was a glowing account of the council’s passage without debate of an almost $2 million tax break for an eco-devo scheme or scam (depending on your perspective). The degree of acclamation was such that the reader would have been surprised to learn that there were any votes against it at all.

In fact, though, one councilman did vote against this purported civic boon. Had he dozed off? Was he drunk? Was he merely disgruntled, defeated by the overwhelming forces of progress?

We don’t know. The reporter didn’t ask him or even note his vote.

That was a pity. For who won a particular vote is only part of the story. It can be determined by anyone with basic math skills. Those on the losing side, though, often have the more interesting and perhaps prescient observations and questions, in this case whether there was any actual evidence that such tax breaks create jobs.

It is why the Romans pulled winning generals from the field. It was understood that winners have trouble understanding why they won, their egos having taken over at the moment of victory to credit a heroic vision rather than, say, the simple and more determinant lay of the battlefield.

Losers, though, know exactly why they lost. They spend a lot of time thinking about it.

It was Rudyard Kipling’s definition of a man: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” Or if that is too old school for you, there is Donald Trump: “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

How many can remember the score of the 1979 championship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the game that popularized big-time college basketball? And was the score the important thing? As broadcaster Al McGuire said after the game, “Winning is only important in war and surgery.”

In any case, you would think it a basic of the journalism craft to be curious about the reasoning of those on the losing side of a public discussion. The economist Thomas Sowell suggests three questions that can serve as a guideline for council reporters:

My guess is that the winners of most votes by our local council could not answer all or maybe any of those questions. But journalism owes it to readers to at least ask them. — tcl


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