If you asked unimpeachable sources such as St. Peter or former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee why so many pretty average people often choose journalism for a career over, say, rocket science or particle physics, the simple, one-word answer you’ll likely get is “mathematics.”
Please understand, we journalists do arithmetic reasonably well — addition, division, even an occasional fraction. We fall flat on our questioning faces when high-order math such as the metric system, expense reports and political calculus come into play.
Part of this failure might stem from the fact that mathematics rarely makes sense.
For example, the basic rule in American government is majority rule, or 51 yeas beat 49 nays every time. Even a numb knucklehead like me can noodle that one out.
The problem is that supposedly smarter knuckleheads, say, U.S. senators, cannot. If one senator out the chamber’s 100 places a “hold” on a federal appointee or a piece legislation, nine times out of 10 the other 99 turn into pillars of salt.
That type of head-standing carries consequences. One is that it makes lobbying easier than, frankly, even journalism. Journalism, after all, requires at least two sources to start printing presses humming; lobbying needs just one senator to stop, well, all humming, talking, legislating, everything.
When the two professions cross paths — as often happens in Washington, where 11,000 registered lobbyists and an estimated 4,000 journalists attempt to divine what one president, nine Supreme Court Justices and 535 members of Congress are doing — confusion reigns.
No one seems to know anything and nothing ever adds up.
For example, the recently published Nov. edition of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Leadership and Solutions newsletter noted that “NCBA worked behind the scenes to successfully kill an amendment by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to the fiscal 2010 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriation bill that would have required the Department of Justice to expand oversight efforts of competition within the agriculture industry.”
Why would any one of the nation’s estimated 700,000 cattlemen want anyone — let alone a group that calls itself “national” despite a membership of just one in every 20 American cattlemen — to “successfully kill” any boost in competition oversight when only four meatpackers buy nearly nine out every 10 head of cattle sold in the U.S.?
Moreover, why would this, as Sen. Grassley likes to call ‘em, “packer lackey” group brag that it killed additional ag competition oversight when several Capitol Hill staffers who worked on the effort recall that the amendment died after the Senate parliamentarian ruled it “non-germane?”
Either way, if the brag is to be believed, the NCBA is proud to take credit for a move that harms all cattlemen — all of agriculture, in fact, and not just the 5 percent of cattle growers nationwide who, for some unfathomable reason, continue to pay NCBA dues — when doing so is neither smart nor economical.
Then again, smart and economical rarely describes reality — and even more rarely, the math employed — on Capitol Hill.
Math certainly has little to do with the flood of e-mailed press releases we journalists receive daily from the Senate Ag Committee since Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln became its chairperson Sept. 9.
The press deluge, like the Ag Committee’s first field hearing ever in Arkansas Nov. 23, comes courtesy of taxpayers and the two-term senator’s uphill, 2010 re-election campaign. (One of Lincoln’s first officials act as aggie boss was to address NCBA’s annual legislative conference in Washington Sept. 15.)
How do I know Blanche’s press blizzard is pure politics and purely about re-election?
While I don’t do math well, I can read.