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Progressives have been wrong – overly idealistic – about the power of communication. Many of us cling to the belief that if you just get all the correct information out and circulate it widely and reasonably, sensible people will listen, reflect and come to see the light. Year in and year out we are proven wrong. While it is often the case that the majority of Americans do see the light – about the need for healthcare reform, a new energy policy or affordable, high-quality day care – the dominant journalistic practices, especially in broadcast and cable news, dim the light in favor of noise.
Far-right Republicans understand, almost instinctively, this preference for noise. And they appreciate – and know how to cultivate – the greatest bias in electronic journalism right now: the laziness bias. The laziness bias means you feature sensation over substance, provocative sound bites over investigative reporting, misinformation over fact. Why should news outlets pay attention to anything Sarah Palin says, given that she’s a proven ignoramus and no longer a public official? Why do Rush Limbaugh’s verbal bombs, all of them deliberately wrong or hateful, circulate through the mainstream media? Because they’re shocking. Palin braying about “death panels.” Limbaugh, on the occasion of Ted Kennedy’s death, asserting the senator had spent his time “sabotaging his own country.” Through August, all the noise about “killing granny.”
One of the pioneers of this approach was Phyllis Schlafly, who in the late ’70s masterminded killing the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have benefited millions of women. In addition to very skillful grassroots organizing at the state legislature level, Schlafly made the ERA about one thing: unisex toilets. Did women really want to be forced to walk by all the guys peeing in urinals to go to the bathroom at a restaurant or highway rest stop? Well, no. At every opportunity, Schlafly raised the specter of same-sex bathrooms – a simultaneously titillating and discomfiting notion – and it worked.
The far right also did this with childcare in the ’70s. This was the decade of revolution in family life, as millions of mothers with infants and toddlers entered the work force. The need for childcare was urgent. Walter Mondale, then a senator from Minnesota, introduced the Child and Family Services Act of 1975, which would have provided federal funds for day-care services, prenatal care, medical care for handicapped kids, and other educational and health services. In short order, mimeographed flyers circulated claiming the bill would force parents to turn their kids over to government-run centers, would mandate “communal forms of upbringing” and, in the coup de grace, would encourage children to sue their parents if they required them to attend Sunday school. At the time, Mondale referred to the campaign as “one of the most distorted and dishonest attacks I have witnessed in my 15 years of public service.” That was before the current death panels insanity and, of course, before Fox News.
So here we are again, with the news media providing a platform for all these crazy assertions about how healthcare reform will euthanize us all, while doing precious little to expose how the current system benefits the few at the expense of many and will bankrupt the country if we don’t do something. Again, minority positions are made to look like the majority sentiment, which then affects public opinion, which in turn gives support to those seeking to deep-six true reform.
Here’s the story I’d like to see reported. It was proposed by my friend John, who is trying to get a new healthcare plan but can’t without paying through the nose because he has one of those dreaded “pre-existing conditions.”
The camera would pan across the vacation homes of Steven Wiggins, CEO of Oxford Health Plans (annual salary $29 million), Wilson Taylor, chairman and CEO of CIGNA Corporation ($11 million), Joseph Sebastianelli, president of Aetna, Inc. ($7.3 million) and Leonard Schaeffer, chairman and CEO of WellPoint Health Networks, Inc. ($7 million). The reporter would identify the owner of each house, list that CEOs’ salary, describe how the restrictions in the health insurance policies they sell helped pay for those homes, and then report on what their corporations are doing to derail or water down proposed healthcare legislation.
But then a story like this, and the dozens of others that are needed, would require the media to totally abandon their laziness bias. Better to just show Rush Limbaugh calling healthcare reform a “miniature version of fascism.”
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.