I wonder sometimes.
There are two items that caught my attention this morning that signify – well – something. Something about our news media. Something about us.
The first is an article from the UK tabloid press (WARNING, I’ve had to retract some commentary before based on those kinds of sources) detailing an apparently retaliatory act by the Russian government against the US imposed sanctions over the Ukraine situation. Seems the Russian government is now going to deny the US access to the International Space Station (ISS), which apparently only Russian Soyuz spacecraft can provide, and which the US has been using at about $70 million per astronaut per trip.
The other interesting thing about this little piece is where it reports that Russia is also going to stop selling the US rocket engines that the US apparently uses to launch military satellites.
I consider myself – perhaps wrongly – a fairly well informed person with a bent for military type news. I seem to be dimly aware of the fact that only Russian spacecraft can get to the ISS. I should think the details of this would be common knowledge among Americans generally, but we don’t get much reporting on space activity generally anymore and of course the linked article comes out of the UK, not the US.
Beyond that, I did not know at all that the US uses Russian provided rockets and rocket engines for US military purposes. This is odd, to say the least, and I should think that would have been big news at some point or another.
What explains this? Not sure this morning, but the subject is worthy of further inquiry, methinks.
The second item concerns the quite untimely death at age 36 of a Swedish film director named Malik Bendjelloul, who won an Oscar just last year for a documentary film called “Searching for Sugar Man” which concerned an American singer/songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez. Now, it is not surprising to me that I’ve never, before seeing today’s story, heard of any of that – the film director, his Oscar winning film, or the American singer/songwriter who is the subject of the film.
But what is surprising is that Rodriguez, although it seemed terminally obscure in the United States, was massively famous in….South Africa. And I guess the documentary film was about that apparent anomaly.
Which connects that story with the first one: what accounts for the fact that an American can be hugely popular and famous in South Africa when no one in the US knows who he is?
Fame is a tricky business. And it’s related to editorial judgment, because it’s probably fair to say that you aren’t famous unless the media report about you, and of course that involves editorial judgment.
Meanwhile, we all know that Alec Baldwin had another altercation with the police, we’re familiar with every “selfie” posted by Kim Kardashian, we know all about Beyonce Knowles’ relationship with her sister, and we’re fully informed about Tom and Gisele’s third haunt, a $14 million apartment in NYC.
Now, up until a couple of years ago I would guess that most people in the US had never heard of the phrase ‘wrongful conviction’. That’s been changing in the time since, but not by a lot. CNN runs a series once in a while. It’s spilled over into a few other places.
Cases about wrongful convictions are litigated all the time, though, and have been for many more years than the very mild, recent up-tick in media interest.
I guess the point is that stories about our relationship with the Russians and our faltering criminal justice system which is now even botching executions are far more relevant and important than stories having anything to do with Tom Brady and Gisele what’s-her-name, but we’re saturated with stories about the latter while there’s a dearth of stories about the former.
Throw in a little factoid that might be related and might be of interest: 50 years ago it was not uncommon for NFL players, even very good ones on championship teams, to have second careers in the off season to make ends meet. Fifty years ago a novel about a wrongful conviction from an unknown author could get published, do extremely well, and be made into a movie that in turn would earn 10 times its budget.
Fame and wealth are, I guess, highly correlated. But there should be limits, not by law or anything, just people’s sense of what reality should be. A while ago I alluded to the social dangers of extreme “reward asymmetry”, here and here. In this context I think I pretty much coined the term.
I can recite story after story to you from years of private practice starting about 1990 – both civil and criminal cases – illustrating how, in the fifty years since NFL players had to have second jobs, and moving stories about wrongful convictions were best-sellers, rampant economic injustice has taken over our courts and is now more or less expected.
What is the cause, what is the effect?* That’s a very interesting question as well. Did the courts tow the line in those days, at least to some extent because they feared they would be shamed by the media if they didn’t? Or did the media tow the line because they feared the courts would shame them if they didn’t?
Or did both tow the line because they feared the public was interested, and just, and would not tolerate rampant injustice?
And God help us, what about lawyers? Then and now?
Too big a subject for one post, I’m afraid.
* Can’t be our fault. We’re all much, much smarter than average.
Update: You have to laugh at the CNN coverage of the same story as the first link in this post, with the headline “Russia To Leave International Space Station by 2020” as opposed to the British Telegraph’s “Russia to Ban US from Using International Space Station Over Ukraine Sanctions.”
The CNN article still doesn’t say anything about Russia providing rocket engines for the launch of US military satellites. Like this is not newsworthy.
Maybe that information is classified. Wouldn’t be the first time classified information leaked in the foreign press when the US press doesn’t report it because here it would be illegal.