Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pledge, Broccoli And The Responsibilities Of The Media

The new Republican Pledge to America promises to get rid of "Obamacare". Whether it also gets rid of dust, the way the traditional Pledge does, remains a mystery.

But most Americans don't want to get rid of "Obamacare" in the sense of returning to the wild west cowboy type markets which the wingnuts adore. Indeed, they would have liked something more than the wishy-washy compromise the Obama administration finally arrived at. That particular compromise gave away an additional fraction of women's reproductive rights, for example.

A recent AP poll found that:
about four in 10 adults think the new law did not go far enough to change the health care system, regardless of whether they support the law, oppose it or remain neutral. On the other side, about one in five say they oppose the law because they think the federal government should not be involved in health care at all.

The AP poll was conducted by Stanford University with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Overall, 30 percent favored the legislation, while 40 percent opposed it, and another 30 percent remained neutral.

Those numbers are no endorsement for Obama's plan, but the survey also found a deep-seated desire for change that could pose a problem for Republicans. Only 25 percent in the poll said minimal tinkering would suffice for the health care system.

Would this desire for change pose problems for the Republicans? I'm not sure. As an example, note the way this particular opinion is reported here:

Brian Braley, 49, a tech industry worker from Mesa, Ariz., wants Washington to keep its hands off. "I think it's a Trojan horse," Braley said of the health care law. "It's a communist, socialist scheme. All the other countries that have tried this, they're billions in debt, and they admit this doesn't work."

It may well satisfy people who share Braley's outlook if Republicans succeed in tearing out what they dismiss as "Obamacare" by the roots. But GOP leaders would still find themselves in a quandary.
Those "who share Braley's outlook?" No correction of Braley's lies about other countries? Those are allowed to stay as if they were facts. Or at least an "outlook".

And that is one big problem in how the media often reports on politics: The he-said-she-said "balance" with mostly no attempt to provide actual facts. "The earth is a sphere, some say, but others say it's a head of broccoli."

This links to a wider problem which is the failure of the media to provide people correct information. Focusing on the he-said-she-said pattern will do that, as my sphere-broccoli example shows, and so will the use of just one ideologically biased source of news (such as the Fox News). The consequences of the resulting lack of information can be seen, for example, in this study about how Americans really would prefer a more equal wealth distribution than they now have:

Recent analyses have shown that income inequality in the US has grown steadily for the past three decades and reached its highest level on record, exceeding even the large disparities seen in the 1920s, before the Great Depression. Norton and Ariely estimate that the one percent wealthiest Americans hold nearly 50 percent of the country's wealth, while the richest 20 percent hold 84 percent of the wealth.

But in their study, the authors found Americans generally underestimate the income disparity. When asked to estimate, respondents on average estimated that the top 20 percent have 59 percent of the wealth (as opposed to the real number, 84 percent). And when asked to choose how much the top 20 percent should have, on average respondents said 32 percent -- a number similar to the wealth distribution seen in Sweden.

"What is most striking" about the results, argue the authors, is that they show "more consensus than disagreement among ... different demographic groups. All groups – even the wealthiest respondents – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than what they estimated the current United States level to be, while all groups also desired some inequality – even the poorest respondents."

The authors suggest the reason that American voters have not made more of an issue of the growing income gap is that they may simply not be aware of it. "Second, just as people have erroneous beliefs about the actual level of wealth inequality, they may also hold overly optimistic beliefs about opportunities for social mobility in the United States, beliefs which in turn may drive support for unequal distributions of wealth," they write.
Setting aside the fact that income inequality is not the same as wealth inequality, the above quote suggests that Americans have not been given  information on the current levels of income or wealth inequalities.  It doesn't seem to be the job of the media, I guess.  But whose job is it, then?

If the job is left to politicians, say, then the he-said-she-said format makes all assertions look equally likely to be true or equally suspect.  This is a real dilemma, because an informed electorate is a precondition for democracy to work.
The pictures I chose for this post are intended to misinform you by adding noise, the way political debates and articles often do. (Sticks out tongue)