Friday, June 29, 2012

Why the Coverage of the Health Care Law is Nonsense

Yesterday's news cycle was, of course, totally dominated by the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act. It was fun, in a way, to watch the ebbs and flows - to see people's reactions on Facebook, to watch CNN screw up the story in the first 30 seconds. Some are happy, some are sad. Those predicting doom and the end of Western Civilization are wrong, as such people always are.

But here's the thing: pretty much all of the coverage of yesterday, and into today, is flat-out useless. As a nation, we are consumed with every question except the one we should be asking.

I will concede the point that, to lawyers and people with an interest in Constitutional jurisprudence, the part of the media blitz devoted to dissecting the decision itself was interesting. To those folks out there who actually have the expertise and interest to follow that sort of thing - a very small slice of the American population, some of them my friends - have at it. I've no doubt that amongst the hullabaloo of yesterday some interesting stuff emerged.

For the rest of us, however, everything that we have heard might as well have been broadcast in Swahili. Those stories that weren't devoted to the legal theories were focused on the politics: how does this affect the Presidential race, what will this do in Congressional races, how are Democrats and Republicans reacting. At hastily-arranged (but widely broadcast) news conferences John Boehner vowed to "fight on", while Nancy Pelosi declared victory. Across the nation, every local media outlet turned to its local reps and Senators, every one of whom responded in ways entirely predictable and scripted.

None of this matters to anybody whose career isn't actually in politics. Again, we're talking about a very small slice of the American population here.

What really matters to the rest of us is simple: what does this law actually do? How will it affect our lives? Will it make us better or worse off as a country? I get that there are winners and losers - every change creates winners and losers. Some segments of society will pay more, some will pay less. Some will get greater benefits, others will get fewer. That's the nature of change. But the two questions we really care about are,  what will this do to me and will we be better or worse off as a nation?

I'm sure that somewhere out there in the vast media wasteland, somebody spent 5 minutes aimlessly cogitating on this. But on the whole, if you listen to the media coverage you would think that the careers of a few hundreds of politicians were the most important thing in the world, instead of the welfare, health and prosperity of 300 million Americans. Worse still, to a certain extent we inflict this same nonsense on ourselves, at least if my casual viewing of the social media streams is any indication. We followed right along with the CNN/Fox/NPR herd.

I don't, of course, expect this to change. The hard truth is that almost nobody really knows what the law will do, except in a few specific instances - barring insurance companies from blocking coverage for preexisting conditions, for example. It's fascinating to me that, according to most polls, the law itself taken as a whole is unpopular even as the few concrete things about it that people actually know are widely approved of. It's a triumph of the takeover of Tribal Perception. We are all quite ready to pass judgment on something we have spent hardly 30 seconds' thought actually considering.

We expect this from our politicians, whose well-paying jobs (have you seen their health care coverage, or their retirement benefits?) depend on continuing the Kabuki theater that is tribal American politics. But it appears that we, or some segment of us, have decided to treat the health care debate the way we treat the Super Bowl: as an occasion for cheering on Our Team, and for determining our feelings (and our perceptions) on the basis of whether our Team "won" or "lost".

I think - or, at least, I hope - that there are folks out there who really don't care about this nonsense, and who would desperately like to know more about this law and how it will affect their lives and the community and society they live in. Those of us in this group, of course, are pretty much abandoned. Politicians will not pander to us, because we don't care. And CNN, the NY Times, Fox, and NPR are not going to go get the information we want and bring it to us, because Horse Race Reporting is cheaper, easier, and far more profitable.

Is there a "silent majority" (to borrow Nixon's phrase) here? I doubt it, although voting behavior suggests there may be (even Presidential elections only pull about 50% of the electorate). But the ability of that segment to actually influence things will continue to be near zero, until and unless a common interest emerges to both unite people and pull them to action. Until then, back to the Super Bowl!

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