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A Recovering Journalist Remembers Chicken Little: The Bangladeshi Computer Gap

I have a dark, shameful secret.

At one point, for more than fifteen years, I worked as a... a... professional journalist.

Not that I expect to receive an invitation from Jerry Springer's people anytime soon. Compared with their impressive collection of the dysfunctional, the disturbed and the deranged, my shame is too tame, too banal. It's also slightly less conducive to producing offspring with vestigial tails.

But a determined person can stop sleeping with one's mother's daughter's cousin's fiancé; with persistence, you can break off that affair with the Nazi cross-dresser you met on the psychic hot-line while seeking advice on that sex-change operation you're saving up to get.

By comparison, that's kid stuff. Journalism is dark, nasty, and frequently brutish.

And incurable.

I've never met an "ex-journalist"; at best, we're all only in recovery. Worse, there's no effective 12-step program ("My name is Earl, and I am a journalist") and no support network. For years, I've been reduced to aversion therapy-- thumbing through back issues of People magazine; skimming editorial pages, especially during election years; reading anything by Danielle Steele-- until all desire to write was beaten into dust.

It never works for long. Each morning, you awake with an insatiable thirst to interview somebody, anybody. You wrestle with the urge to crank out a full-bodied news piece-- a tickle, just a taste of inverted pyramid format. Maybe you think about taking the edge off with a juicy little feature article, or imagine toking a cool, quick one for the sports section. Inevitably, in the dark hours of the soul when the Need crackles like a cheap neon sign, you find yourself looking for the Hard Stuff: a "think piece" on some apocalyptic, global-scale hand-wringing issue.

It's not your fault; it’s the disease.

During the time I was committing journalism, I wrote my share of such articles. We had a name for them: "Chicken Little stories," a nod to "the sky-is-falling" tone they invariably took.

It was great fun. You could write about killer diseases, or lowered school test scores, or the threat of the international metric system. DDT was in every glass of milk, Alar on every apple. Mind-controlling cults prowled every playground in search of innocent children, whom they would routinely convert to sandal-footed automata. You could say virtually anything in a Chicken Little story, with a single caveat: you had to cite a "Certified Expert" as a source.

To put it mildly, that was not an onerous task. As Jerry, Oprah, Wanda and legions of other televised "talk" shows have demonstrated, one need only flip over the random rock to find any number of "certified experts" swarming underneath. You simply seize one, being careful to hold it at arm's length, and let the journalism commence.

I miss those days, and writing those stories.

So it is with a particular kind of pleasure that I note the tradition continues on. Specifically, it continued on in a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune, revealed to a shocked world on a sunny mid-summer morning. Here was first revealed to the world the scandalous human tragedy of the Bangladeshi Computer Gap.

In this article, the certified expert was none other than the United Nations Development Program, which issues an annual global missive called the Human Development Report. Its main theme was that the division between rich and poor, have and have-not, has become a yawing chasm that the report called "grotesque."

In every way, the Tribune article is a classic Chicken Little. For instance, drawing from the U.N. report, the article relates with breathless horror:

"The United States, meanwhile, has more computers than the rest of the world combined. Lesser-developed countries are not likely to catch up anytime soon: the same computer that costs a month's wages for the average American takes eight years' income from the average resident of Bangladesh."

The Bangladeshi Computer Gap is horrifying indeed, though neither the U.N. nor the Tribune make clear exactly how. One might speculate as to why your average Bangladeshi might even want a computer, unless he could barter it for a ticket to anyplace else.

According to the most recent edition of The CIA Factbook, the problems facing Bangladesh are a many and varied lot: "droughts, cyclones; much of the country routinely flooded during the summer monsoon season... many people are landless and forced to live on and cultivate flood-prone land; limited access to potable water; water-borne diseases prevalent; water pollution especially of fishing areas results from the use of commercial pesticides; intermittent water shortages because of falling water tables in the northern and central parts of the country; soil degradation; deforestation; severe overpopulation."

With these kinds of problems, catching up on eight years of unread e-mail tends to be relatively low on one's list of priorities. And if one wants to play a little Doom --well, there's nothing virtual about that particular reality in Bangladesh. Doom, or the potential therefor, seems in plentiful supply all around.

(Still, it's fascinating, in a perverse sort of way, to speculate on how our computer-less Bangladeshi might fruitfully pass the time during that long eight-year wait. Presumably, with a national literacy rate of less than 32 percent, he might be well advised to spend the time learning how to read. A genuine commitment to public education is one of the few so-called entitlement programs that really work. It drives the pulsating economic engine in countries such as Singapore, and may be El Comandante's only lasting legacy in post-Castro Cuba; no other prescription has been proven able to push a country from Third- to First World status in a single generation. Curiously, neither the United Nations nor the Chicago Tribune thought to relay this potentially useful advice.)

The Tribune article continued on in the best tradition of a good Chicken Little. It included all manner of charts and graphs, bulged with somber quotes from a veritable Who's Who of economists, political scientists, sociologists and other Certified Experts. And within the context of this mountainous volume of facts and data, it was convincing in a conclusion that was as dramatic as it was surprising:

Some people have a lot more money than others! Worse, the people who have it, spend it! On things like computers!

One could barely suppress a shudder at this startling revelation.

I don't want to sound insensitive. As The CIA Factbook pointed out so succinctly, Bangladesh is a country with a number of ... well, challenges. As a member of the human family, the plight of a computer-less jute farmer in Bangladesh should be a matter of sincere concern for each and every one of us.

Or should it?

Is it alarming -- or even relevant-- that the average Bangladeshi is computer-free? Is it even regrettable? Should we all begin to send our outdated IBM 386s and Classic Macs to a country that, at least according to the CIA Factbook, floods chest-deep every cyclone season? Can the average Bangladeshi tread water while holding a CPU and monitor above his head? Instead, would a campaign to send them hip-waders and ladders be more practical, not to mention appreciated?

So many questions, so little time. But unanswered (and unanswerable) questions are an integral part of every Chicken Little story.

There's an unspoken scoring system for Chicken Little stories. You get points for forecasting doom, especially if the doom can be perceived as the fault of the more fortunate. You tally bonus points if the underprivileged in question are members of the teeming millions who, somehow, continue to succeed in propagating madly. This, despite the woefully inadequate percentage of global resources we in the selfish Western world leave for them.

In short, you get a lot of points for espousing collective guilt, for sincere breast-beating, for cultural self-flagellation. But when you write a Chicken Little, you don't get any points for simple common sense.

As a journalist today, it's hard to go wrong by decrying the fact that some people have more money than others. The fact that Bill Gates' net worth ($40 billion, give or take the latest blip in the Dow-Jones) is 23.52 times the Gross National Product of Rwanda (a paltry $1.7 billion) sounds patently obscene.

Obscene it may be, given both Gates' reputed business ethics and the number of bugs Microsoft thoughtfully includes in every program it releases. But be honest. Which would you prefer to buy: a new copy of Microsoft Office, bugs and all, or a majority interest in Rwanda's equivalent of General Electric?

It's a pretty safe bet that most people-- not to mention the reporter who wrote the article, or the unnamed author of the U.N. report-- would make the same decision you, or I, would.

But that would be common sense, not Chicken Little journalism.

In Chicken Little journalism, it's fashionable to point out that the world’s richest countries are home to only 20 percent of the world's population-- but lay claim to (gasp!) more than 85 percent of the world's income.

That is a fact. But personally, I'm more outraged when I compare Bill Gates' $40 billion-plus to my... well, my considerably less impressive net worth. Mainly, though, I recognize that I'm just pissed-off at myself for majoring in journalism instead of computer science back in the '70s.

Still, I know where the reporter, the Trib, and even the anonymous author of the U.N. report are coming from; I spent a decade-and-a-half in the newsroom trenches myself.

It's summer. Neither Congress nor most state legislatures are in session. In his hidden bunker outside Qom, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quietly chuckles as he watches the uranium-enrichment centrifuges spin. This year's contingent of interns seem safely distanced from the Oval Office; aside from the daily news feed of town hall meetings and stories lambasting Canadian health care, there's little real news. No matter-- the news staff is rotating in and out on vacation, anyway. Reporters and editors scramble for copy to fill the hungry maw of each day's news hole.

I no longer make a living as a journalist--a rguably, recalling the slave-wage peonage that persists at many newspapers, I never really did. But I remember the bit of jargon the newsroom used to describe this time of year.

We called it the "Silly Season." It's the time of year when Chicken Little flies.

Earl Merkel is the author of VIRGINS AND MARTYRS (Five Star), FINAL EPIDEMIC (PenguinPutnam/NAL) and DIRTY FIRE (PenguinPutnam/NAL).