After my conversation with Braver, I went to Washington to meet with Dan Weinberg, the man who headed up that data collection for the Census Bureau. As often happens to me in Washington, I felt I was in another world:
STOSSEL So the Census worker says, how much in child support payments were you supposed to receive this year? And the woman remembers . . .
DAN WEINBERG Yes.
STOSSEL I just have a hard time believing that these people, many of whom are angry, are going to give honest answers.
DAN WEINBERG Actually-well, the anger may help them remember what they're supposed to receive.
STOSSEL Why not go to the man and ask, is it true?
DAN WEINBERG We would be violating the confidentiality of the custodial mother.
STOSSEL Is there any cross-check?
DAN WEINBERG No. We don't check any of it.
STOSSEL But wouldn't they lie just because they're mad at the man?
DAN WEINBERG People are basically honest.
The spirit of George Washington's cherry tree lives on along the Potomac. I too cannot tell a lie: The media both distort and oversimplify the issues of custody and child support. That reinforces the myth that many divorced dads never bother to see their children-the "runaway dads" so beloved by headline writers. Some men are every bit as despicable as the media portray them, but Braver's study showed that the majority of divorced dads do try to see their kids. In many cases, "fathers were impeded in their efforts," Braver told me. "The mother just simply said, 'No, you can't see your kid.'"
We videotaped one such heartbreaking scene. A divorced father went to see his five kids for what he thought would be a full-day visit. He was entitled to that, under a court order, and the court also ordered the mother not to discourage the children from spending time with their father. But she clearly had poisoned his children's minds against him. The father stood just outside his ex-wife's house and begged his children, "Would you like to go out with me today?" "No," said one kid after another. Then the mother ordered the kids back into her house.
What comes through on the tape is the unbridled satisfaction of the mother and the helplessness of the father. But that's not the picture you get from the media. The media automatically cast divorced parents in the roles of villainous father and heroic mother. Many mothers are heroic, but so are many fathers. But a divorced mother as the villain? Heaven forbid! That would stand the world of media victimology on its head.
MYTH: Schools are violent.
TRUTH: Schools are pretty safe.
Media bad news bears love crime and violence. Turn on the television or pick up a tabloid, and you will be convinced that you have more to fear than ever before. Terrible things are happening, and everyone knows they're happening much more often. These stories are more candidates for the shovel. The gory pictures and the excited copy conceal the actual TRUTH: America is safer than almost any country in human history.
The Columbine, Jonesboro, and Paducah school shootings during the late 1990s triggered a regular spate of stories about "spreading school violence." But school violence in America had been steadily decreasing. Violent crimes in schools dropped by half between 1992 and 2002, although reporting about school violence increased.