Friday, May 29, 2009

The business of news

When I was growing up in the 1970s (yes, in fact it was last century, thank you very much), news was different. And I do not think that this is just the everything-was-better-in-my-day nostalgia. News was about news. News was not sexy (heck, newspeople were not sexy!). What has happened to the news? Well, if you have read Robert Reich's Supercapitalism, the answer is obvious to you: competition. Interestingly, economic theories suggest that competition is good for the consumer -- it drives quality up and prices down. That may be true for toilet paper (although even here I am not sure this idea has held water), but it has not panned out for such consumables as news and healthcare. Instead, what happens is that all of the market moves in the same direction, applying the same strategies and tactics to maximizing value to their investors. By definition, a high bottom line comes from only two sources: low expenditures or high returns, and preferably both. Since commercial news channels are supported through advertising, their market share of our eye ball and ear time are critical to investor value. Thus, the slippery slope to the lowest common denominator (here we go again with the denominators). 

With the advent of constant news the competition for market share became far stiffer than we could have ever imagined in the 1970s. In order to distinguish one Constant Chatter Channel from another, marketing ideas had to be applied; and they were. The anchors are now for the most part younger, prettier and more friendly-appearing than in the days of yore. They keep us glued to the screens with a constant barrage of headlines and sound bites designed to tantalize, terrify and titillate, and ultimately sell more products: hospital services, safer (gas guzzling) cars, home alarm systems, etc., to keep us wrapped in a cocoon of comfort and ignorance.

It is interesting to think of our healthcare system in this context as well. A mammoth enterprise generating staggering returns for many involved (this includes some physicians, academic researchers, manufacturers, insurers, and, yes, investors), it has not promoted health, but disease maintenance. Why is this? Well the simple answer is that health does not generate income, disease does. And furthermore, think of the economic consequences of cleaning up such promoters of disease as tobacco, certain forms of pollution, as well as the way we produce food... In fact, think of the financial and thus political muscle behind these industries, a Goliath that can easily stamp out any grass-roots efforts to set disease prevention agenda. Add into the mix the at once frightened and phlegmatic populace expecting to be entertained by the news, and how we got here becomes obvious. The less obvious issue is how we move out of this morass of mis-information. 

As I have already mentioned, I do not believe that premeditated evil is a common human practice. In fact, I have to conclude that our slide into the current situation is a result of chaos. Further, it is a result of the unopposed stakeholders with too much to lose and thus too many personal agendas. The healthcare system has been like a symphony orchestra without a conductor -- each excellent musician making excellent individual music with the end-result of painful cacophony. If you buy my theory, then you much agree that it is disingenuous for us to maintain that the government does not belong in this discussion. We must think of our elected officials as a political group that represents precisely the interests of the populace, and thus balances out all of the other voices at the table. 

I do not hold out much hope for the business of news -- after all, keeping us informed is the job of serious news outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC. And since these alternatives are still widely available, I personally do not care what others do -- these are the choices that we still have in America. As for the healthcare system, we must hold our politicians responsible for representing our interests and stopping this disease juggernaut in favor of promoting a healthy society.  

1 comment:

  1. A well-written (as usual!) and thought-provoking article. Hopefully our new and energetic Administration will garner the support needed to push healthcare in the right direction. We voted them in; now they have to really pay attention to us.

    Keep up the good work, M.