As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Where's The Beef?

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for the Washington Post, wants to know where all the stories went explaining the health care policy about which everyone is shouting.

In my examination of roughly 80 A-section stories on health-care reform since July 1, all but about a dozen focused on political maneuvering or protests. The Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism had a similar finding. Its recent month-long review of Post front pages found 72 percent of health-care stories were about politics, process or protests.

"The politics has been covered, but all of this is flying totally over the heads of people," said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, who has been tracking coverage by The Post and other news organizations. "They have not known from Day One what this was about."

It's not for lack of interest. About 45 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press recently said they have been following the health-care story more closely than any other.

But nearly half of those surveyed this month in a nationwide poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they are "confused" about reform plans.

Health care, to be sure, is a complex subject, and even several weeks of "what this means for you" stories wouldn't necessarily enlighten everyone. Plus, people do sometimes use "you're not telling me what this is about" as a means to either brandish ignorance or get out of having to do any actual research. But I think Matt Yglesias does get this right:

This is, of course, the media’s characteristic flaw. The bulk of reporters and editors at major political media institutions have almost no understanding of substantive public policy issues. And they conjoin to their ignorance a kind of contempt for people who do understand them. Consequently, people who are interested in such matters tend to be driven out of the institutions in questions. Instead, you get a self-replicating cadre of self-congratulatory and shallow people who enjoy doing this kind of coverage while sneering at people who care about substance.

The bias toward process stories is not ideological in its intent, but it’s strongly ideological in its impact. Creating public confusion and ignorance while obscuring what’s really happening tends to favor elites versus people of modest means, it favors the status quo over change, it favors insiders over outsiders, and it favors narrow interests over the public interest.

Paul Krugman has more. The horse-race stuff is easier to write and protects reporters from being tagged with "bias". Sharon Begley, a Newsweek writer who did some actual reporting and debunked some right-wing myths, got some death threats for her trouble. And in a follow-up piece, Begley does get to where the allegations about media focus on horse-race fall down a little bit. Begley is right that many ideologues don't WANT to hear anything approaching the truth in their media consumption.

Which brings us back to health-care reform -- in particular, the apoplexy at town-hall meetings and the effectiveness of the lies being spread about health-care reform proposals. First of all, let's remember that 59,934,814 voters cast their ballot for John McCain, so we can assume that tens of millions of Americans believe the wrong guy is in the White House. To justify that belief, they need to find evidence that he's leading the country astray. What better evidence of that than to seize on the misinformation about Obama's health-care reform ideas and believe that he wants to insure illegal aliens, for example, and give the Feds electronic access to doctors' bank accounts?

Obama's opponents also need to find evidence that their reading of him back in November was correct. They therefore seize on "confirmation" that he wants to, for instance, redistribute the wealth, as in his "spread the wealth around" remark to Joe the Plumber -- finding such confirmation in the claims that health-care reform will do just that, redistributing health care from those who have it now to the 46 million currently uninsured. Similarly, they seize on anything that confirms the "socialist" label that got pinned on Obama during the campaign, or the pro-abortion label -- anything to comfort themselves that they made the right choice last November.

There are legitimate, fact-based reasons to oppose health-care reform. But some of the loudest opposition is the result of confirmatory bias, cognitive dissonance, and other examples of mental processes that have gone off the rails.

This is more true of conservatives, I would gather, but I think both sides need to confirm their suspicions before jumping right to the conclusion.

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