The newsroom and the greatest country

Jeff Daniels in HBO’s Newsroom.

Among the hundreds of reviews of  HBO’s The Newsroom during the summer of 2012,  so far, none have questioned the basic accuracy of the screed heard round the world.

You can watch it at this link  or just read it here:

“And you — sorority girl — yeah — just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day, there are some things you should know, and one of them is that there is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
“We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports. America leads the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined.”

Acerbic. Bitter.  Certainly human. But …  journalistically accurate?  Let’s take a look.

  • Literacy:  1oth rank among nations, at 99 percent. Not 7th.
  • Math scores:  30 nations had higher percentages than the U.S. of students at the “advanced” level of mathematics, not 27th.
  • Life expectancy:  38th not 49th.
  • Infant mortality:  34th, not 178th — Way off.  This is the giveaway to the inside joke.  Essentially the Daniels character is making it up.  Granted, 34th isn’t great, but 178th is the west African nation of  Guinea, with an infant mortality rate of  105 per thousand, as opposed to 7 per thousand in the US.
  • Number of incarcerated citizens:  730 per 100,000 — Way ahead of the rest of the world.  True.
  • Americans who believe angels are real:   77 percent, according to a December 2011 poll.  True.
  • Defense spending:   $687 billion is not more than the next 26 countries but it is more than the next 20 or so. Truthful but  not accurate.
  •  The US also leads in a lot of other categories:  Energy use, olympic medals, cheese, backgammon and many others. So cheer up, all you sorority girls.

Does it matter?  Yes, accuracy matters in journalism.  For the show to make the point,  some of it is close enough, but the screed is probably the producer’s inside joke about the accuracy of journalism.

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