• Looking forward
    January 01,2014

    It is an axiom of the news that what we call a good story is one containing something new, unexpected, surprising. A good news story produces reactions such as, “Wow. Isn’t that interesting? Oh, my God. I didn’t know that.”

    Ordinarily, life itself produces enough surprises that, if you are looking and listening, the news columns and airwaves will be full of surprises, many of them bad, some of them good. The key for good journalism is the looking and listening and an openness to the surprising shapes reality takes.

    The past year had plenty of surprises. In fact, what we call history may really be a record of the way events have surprised us, for good and ill. That means that predictions, by their nature, are mostly impossible; if surprises could be predicted, they couldn’t be called surprises.

    But it’s New Year’s Day, a day for predictions, and if we can’t predict surprises, we can at least predict that there will be surprises. The Boston Marathon bombing was one of the big surprises of the past year, and the dramatic days when the two bombers were sought and apprehended was one of the most gripping stories of the year.

    It is a safe bet there will be some sort of unforeseen disaster that tests us in the coming year. One of the big tests is whether the shock of disaster will shake our common sense and steadiness. Rash actions did not follow the Boston bombings as they did the attacks of Sept. 11, and there is a lesson in that.

    At the national level, recent history would suggest that paralysis in Washington might ease a bit in the coming year because Republicans in Congress were chastened after the government shutdown. The budget agreement this month showed they could step back from constant confrontation.

    It is comforting to predict that 2014 will allow for the government to go about its business without crashing on the rocks of Republican obstruction. But it is an election year. Anything can happen. Politicians with demagogic tendencies will be on the loose.

    News of the past few months might suggest that 2014 will witness a) the crashing and burning of the Affordable Care Act, or b) the smooth operation of a health care program that is working out the kinks. Smooth operation may be a stretch, but with more than a million people signed up, and more in the wings, it will be hard for opponents to argue that taking health care coverage from people is a good thing.

    Will the money be there to pay for it? That is one of the big questions for the coming year.

    In this state Vermont Health Connect has not gone as smoothly as Gov. Peter Shumlin would like, and how it stands up financially will say a lot about how quickly, and how successfully, the state proceeds to a single-payer system. Meanwhile, restless Republicans will be looking for a comeback, and as time passes, people growing fatigued with the present administration will start to drift away. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has made early efforts to show a path.

    It’s not a risky bet to say that disaster in the Middle East will worsen. Sectarian strife in Syria and Iraq is becoming a historic calamity. The wild card is Iran and the possibility that President Obama can forge a settlement that will allow Iran to become a force for stability rather than for chaos.

    At home popular unrest with the injustice and inequality that has become so visible has caused a surge of interest in political leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who are willing to take on powerful special interests. A revived, serious left — as distinguished from the frivolous and unserious Occupy movement — may serve as a counterweight to the tea party, which has started to fade.

    That is a prediction based as much on hope as on present reality. But that’s what New Year’s Day is for.

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