Beyond the “Clean Bill of Health”

“Clean bill of health.” That’s what Senator Norm Coleman was saying about the I35W bridge the evening of it’s collapse. Similiarly, Governor Pawlenty assured us that “no structural difficulties had been detected.”

What if it had ended there? What if we didn’t have a handful of tenacious Star Tribune reporters who subsequently uncovered more of the truth than we heard from government sources that night? After all, that’s what happens in societies lacking a vigorous and free press.

If it had ended there, we wouldn’t have learned that officials were well aware of serious structural problems. Yesterday, we wouldn’t have learned about how state officials had planned to fix what they recognized as serious structural deficiencies, but decided at the last minute against the fix because of concerns about safety, logistics, weather, and, yes, funding.

If the news media had only regurgitated the official government accounts and dug no more for the truth – as it increasingly does in downsized newsrooms that have fewer, younger, and greener reporters than in years past – we would still think the bridge had a “clean bill of health.” We would not be nearly as far down the road toward understanding why this catastrophe happened and how other collapses can be prevented in the future.

That’s potentially life-saving work. The reporters who unearthed these stories are probably exhausted, bloodied and loathed by some official government sources. It’s very difficult work piecing together the truth through Data Practices Act Requests and sources other than the officially sanctioned and sanitized sources. It would have been much less taxing to simply do what so many reporters did — regurgitate the talking heads’ official statements and/or speculate about the truth.

Though the Senator and Governor obviously wanted to believe that lack of funding or poor decisions were not factors, they were probably only repeating what they were told by other government officials, not intentionally misleading us. I’m guessing that they are probably learning as much reading the newspaper as we are.

Which is all the more reason to be thankful that a handful of very good reporters are still out there doing their jobs exceptionally well. Nearly every day or so since the collapse, the community has learned something new and important about this issue that we were not hearing from our government. We are more informed and free because of it.

– Loveland