Friday, July 24, 2009

Pleasure centers and the media

We, the US public, are much like that laboratory rat with an electrode in its head, pressing the lever ad nauseam in search of pleasurable stimuli. Except in our case the lever is in the voting booth. That, I believe, is the root of many of our current woes, healthcare and economy included. Here is what I mean.

On tonight's Marketplace, NPR's business program, host Kai Ryssdal interviewed Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Business Channel and Leigh Galagher of Fortune Magazine about the week's developments in the healthcare debate. One of the ideas discussed was that real healthcare reform is likely to bring immediate pain, and any benefits are to be expected in the longer term. And, of course, by then the legislators who ushered in this change would be voted out of the office by their irate constituents as punishment for the short-term sacrifices.

This attention to the short-term is a direct result of our over-exposed and over-analyzed culture of politics. In the sound bite reality of instant communication perception is reality. This makes the politicians not just circumspect, but utterly deliberate in how they appear to the public. They know that every statement, if not examined from every conceivable angle and honed through exhaustive polling, can serve as their undoing if perceived as a mis-step (think the furor over the Obama statement about the Gates arrest). A politician, even the rare earnest one, does not get a second chance to explain himself or his or her complex views not amenable to sound biting.

This media folly applies not only to the healthcare debate, where rampant self-interest masquerades as a perception of fiscal responsibility, but also in the economy as a whole: the instant trading with its attention deficit to long-term growth has partly contributed to our current economic situation, if not directly, then through demanding exorbitant short-term returns at the expense of long-term value.

Now, I am not a luddite -- I enjoy technology and its benefits. However, technology needs to be used responsibly. Thoughtful reporting shapes public opinion. This power should be used in the name of building a better more equitable society rather than for building profits through sensationalized attention grabbers. As the US public we should demand this. Otherwise, all we are doing is enabling the pressing of the electrode in the rat's head.

1 comment:

  1. I support your comments, completely, and have distilled them into a Tweet. That said, most people don't use Twitter, nor do they read blogs. They probably don't watch responsible TV or listen to NPR. So, how best to get the word out there?

    Keep repeating it. Over and over. Word-of-mouth. The old fashioned way. Today's Twitter is Monty Python's town crier from 300 years ago.

    "Bring out yer dead."