Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Banality Of Evil Meets The Triviality Of Journalism

It is disconcerting to look at the front page of a newspaper and see the prosaic little features that publishers use to fill their pages adjacent to reports of great horror and death. For example, today's Chicago Tribune website had this headline -- When kitties compete -- just a few pixels away from this one -- Israel OKs deeper Gaza invasion. I sometimes think the bloodless tone so many articles take towards horrifying subjects is not the result of ideological bias, but rather the result of editors striving to dampen gruesome news so that it can be placed inoffensively beside features about beach fashions and house-training your dog.

This incongruity is usually confined to the front page; rarely does the mundane overlap the harrowing within a story itself. But today the Chicago Tribune contains a deviation from that norm.

Today's edition of the regular, consumer-action feature "What's Your Problem?" concerns the problems a father had using the U.S. Postal Service's Global Express Mail to send a package to his daughter overseas. Most of the piece reads like a typical consumer-advocate piece: the reporter explains the problem, describes the action he took, dutifully reports the response of the service provider, and explains how the matter was finally resolved. It's all very prosaic and, frankly, quite dull.

Except for one little detail: the country the father was sending the package to was Zimbabwe. His daughter, who works for a U.N. humanitarian organization, had just been transferred from the deserts of the Sudan to the Zimbabwean highlands, where it is now winter and where the temperature dips to near freezing at night. The father sent $1300 worth of clothing and other goods to his daughter, but the daughter never received it. So naturally, his first thought was that it must have been the U.S. Post Office's fault, and not the fault of a customs service in a nation with about 300 percent inflation and 80 percent unemployment.

To his credit, the Tribune's reporter quite dutifully investigated the complaint. He was so dutiful, in fact, I wonder if he realized just how absurd the complaint really was. Here's a summary from the Heritage Foundation:

Zimbabwe has suffered economic collapse and political repression under President Robert Mugabe. In the March 2005 election, Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-–Patriotic Front (ZANU-–PF) used intimidation and violence to win a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving ZANU-–PF the votes it needs to change the constitution. Corruption is endemic. Many people have fled, and many who remain are engaged in subsistence agriculture. Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa, cannot feed its own population and requires food assistance.

It's rather depressing to think that the father thought the problem lay with our own postal service and not with one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet, that he failed to see that the problem he had might not be answerable by the earnest pleadings of an American consumer-advocacy column.

[Tracked back to the Outside The Beltway Traffic Jam.]

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