or, Why Do People Waste So Much Time Scapegoating?
I worked for the local PBS station in a previous life in IT support. I considered it a dream job—I not only supported computers but got to indulge my interests in audio, video, doing voiceovers, and TV. It was really great for the first year-and-a-half…and then things started coming unglued. Besides the fact that the working environment was, as one of their video editors put it, an “effing Peyton Place,” the top management was inept. There was a President/General Manager who didn’t understand many of the technical complexities and didn’t care (surprise!), he just wanted to use every available resource to make money. The Chief Engineer at the time, and my boss, was a big Teddy Bear who was always eager to please and would roll on his employees and his decisions when the President barked. Those of us who understood how things worked and asked detailed questions about proposed plans were deemed “negative and un-cooperative.” I was unfortunate enough to get tangled in some of those “Peyton Place” machinations and, after experiencing a catastrophic event that is every IT support person’s nightmare, was eventually invited to tender my resignation as the station and I were “no longer a good fit.” They were generous in that I was allowed to work part-time for six months at full salary, while I searched for a new job. (They were probably afraid I’d do something nasty to them or their computers, or sue them for wrongful termination. But after another staff person admitted they’d been deliberately corrupting the station’s program rights database and I got her fired, you’d think they would have understood I don’t play that way. Whatever—I got another, better job within a few months.)
That nightmare catastrophic event was the failure of a hard drive in the station’s PBS messaging and email server. At the time PBS gave every station an Apple Quadra 650 (as I remember) that ran a program called FirstClass. The machine came with a magneto-optical drive (remember those?) for backups. A backup program ran a script nightly, and the backup discs were regularly rotated. The problem with most backup systems is that you cannot tell if your backups are any good unless you try to restore them. One evening the main hard drive in the Quadra failed. An attempt to restore the previous day’s data failed, as well as the day before that, and the day before that. I was finally able to restore the data from several weeks before, but a lot of data was lost. Since most of the staff used FirstClass as a virtual filing cabinet for all their data (despite being warned many times not to), several important people like the business director were ‘inconvenienced’ in a major way. I admitted the failure to the entire staff in the weekly meeting and accepted the blame for the failure without making excuses. That must’ve been a first; the director of corporate sponsorship told me later with a hint of awe that he really admired me for doing that. Later I found out that the business director went nuclear in a closed door meeting with the upper level staff and ranted, “Somebody’s got to pay for this! There has to be consequences!” Not long afterward the invitation came that forever changed my life for the better.
In the ten+ years since I’ve thought a lot about that phase of my life, and what I’d have done differently. We were always pressured to cut costs and do more with less, but I should have invested in a couple of identical hard drives to practice installing the backups onto. I should have retired those damned MO discs and simply used hard drives in a regular rotation. Forcefully reminding the staff to copy their valuable information onto other media on a weekly basis would have been a good idea. (So would having a boss that would make a decision and back it and his staff under pressure, but I digress.) I’ve also thought a lot about the business manager’s insistence for blood in retribution for his loss—not in a vengeful way, but in a realization that the bloodshed didn’t solve one single problem. Instead of looking at the issue and saying “It doesn’t matter how we got here—how can we work together to solve this crisis?” the only acceptable option was to “kill” the person who screwed up regardless of that person’s previous record. (In my case the other entanglement sealed my fate, but my boss’s revelation that the President/GM never thought I was the right pick for the job probably meant I was a goner anyway.)
I’ve seen this problem before, many times—most recently in the case of Tony Hayward, BP’s beleaguered CEO. Tony was probably like most corporate CEOs. Most if not all of the company’s daily operations were not even on his personal radar except in the broadest sense. His primary concern was most likely how to grow BP and increase its value for shareholders. Things like safety violations and drill rig design compromises were left to others many management levels below him, and when those topics arose they probably never got to his level. Yet BP made Hayward its public face, a spokesperson charged with soothing frayed nerves and tempers while trying to spin the tragedy into a less negative event. There were a couple of problems with that decision. Hayward was not from the States so he had no idea about the area and what it provided to the country. He was unable to soothe tempers or nerves when various attempts to stop the leak failed. He was chained by company lawyers into political triplespeak that shielded the company from serious legal consequences if they admitted certain things outright. And he had a fatal flaw many enlightened people share: he could see the futility of the blame game and he visibly displayed his intolerance for it.
Keep this in mind: I’m not advocating for Mr. Hayward or his company in any way. What the company did not only in its reported flaunting of safety rules and regulations as well as compromising the well’s design is inexcusable. The best thing BP could have done early on was to accept full blame and financial responsibility without leaving wiggle room by saying they’d pay “all legitimate claims.” The media were in full offensive position before, but feelings toward BP became more hostile after that statement was made. Then came the thousands of reporters asking the same inane questions over and over again, as well as the constant interviews with “the little people” (as BP chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gaffed during a press conference) showing how their lives were devastated. All of this constant attention and yammering is like a hammer, beating the carcass of the horse long after the beast’s life has departed. I believe BP gets it—they screwed up in the most public way possible and were caught in flagrante delicto. I believe they know exactly how much trouble they’re in and how much the environment will be impacted, but perhaps not how much it will cost them. Mr. Hayward had finally had enough when he said he wanted his life back—a statement that further infuriated the populace but was one of the more heartfelt expressions of humanity to come out of BP’s side of the tragedy.
But it still wasn’t over. “His life? What about ours?” the residents of the Gulf started to wail and cry. Then Congress got involved, doing what they do best—spinning their wheels and wasting taxpayer dollars by putting on a public spectacle worthy of Roman gladiators, attempting to beat the oil industry in general and BP in particular into a bloody carcass for the delight of the American people. It got to be too much for Mr. Hayward, who had started the hearing hat in hand with apologies from BP. When the inanity continued and refused to let up, he returned after a break with an attitude of disdain for the process. He began answering questions with perceived contempt, even looking at his watch at one point as if to ask when it would finally be over. He left the hearing more despised than before, but the entire point was missed by many people who watched every interminable moment of the proceedings. The exercise was a waste of time. It might have made people feel better by putting a human face on the disaster rather than a corporate one, but not one more gallon of oil was captured or prevented from flowing when it was over. Congress doubtless thinks they did their job and justified their place in the government, but all they really did was to stir an already smelly pot (literally and figuratively) while fanning the flames of public outrage.
When will we learn? It is every single person’s responsibility to do what they can, to pull together in times of crisis to solve whatever problem has presented itself. As for the Gulf spill, there will be time after the well is plugged and the cleanup is underway to assign blame and collect retribution. Oh, and you media types? Why don’t you do right now what you do so well after a disaster—turn your cameras off, go away, and stop making a circus out of this mess. Only this time, give updates when something newsworthy is happening, and try to find some bright spots in this dark night of our souls. Stop being so incendiary and be more helpful. Screw the ratings for once. That goes for especially for you, CNN—dump the ‘bug’ on your screen pointing out how many days the oil crisis has gone on. When the blame game is played everyone loses.
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