Friday, November 2, 2007

Fear and Loathing of Complexity

Gilbert Cranberg has a valuable think piece about the current health insurance problem posted on Nieman Watchdog. The topic, in his words, is "the riddle of AARP;" and he summarizes this "riddle" as follows:

It’s truly puzzling why an organization that represents some 38 million individuals 50 and over, many of whom depend on Medicare, would endorse a Medicare offshoot – Medicare Advantage – that siphons money from traditional Medicare and is seen by many as part of an effort to privatize Medicare.

He then invests a significant number of (virtual) column-inches to identify the nature of this problem and explore its implications. Having laid out the issue, he then concludes with an interesting digression:

Nor do I understand why the press does not regard any of the above as newsworthy. Medicare is important to readers, and AARP has big membership and influence. Yet what you just read came not from accounts in the mainstream press but by simply following up AARP’s ad for Medicare Advantage in my local newspaper.

Perhaps buyouts and the like have so shorn newsrooms of old-timers that few if any are left who relate to the concerns of seniors. If so, and if that explains why AARP and Medicare Advantage are a non-story, it would be a colossal blunder. What seniors lack in demographics that appeal to advertisers they more than make up in loyalty to newspapers as readers.

According to the credentials given at the bottom of this post, Cranberg used to edit the editorial page for the Des Moines Register and Tribune, which should lead us to accept him as an authoritative source on the question of what constitutes newsworthy content.

Nevertheless, I would hypothesize that this particular case of media silence has nothing to do with the newsworthiness of the content, let alone the seriousness of the issue Cranberg decided to pursue. Rather, it has to do with complexity of content being bad for the businesses of distributing news, however important it may be to that now-outmoded role of the newspaper as public trust (let alone that same role for health care). The argument probably is a double-edged sword. One edge is based on the proposition that people are not particularly interested in reading complex analyses (and those few who are can find them in other places, like The New York Review); so such an analysis would be a waste of valuable page real estate. The other edge argues that, if readers do get absorbed in the complexity of the analysis (because it is delivered in a rhetorical style that they can grasp and perhaps even enjoy), then they are distracted from the advertising that shares page real estate with the article. Either argument carries enough weight to kill the article; taken together they pretty much discourage anyone of staff from even thinking about submitting such an article in the first place.

Yes, Cranberg's article is complex. It is probably best read with a pad of paper on which you can take some notes and possible arrange them in diagrams. Nevertheless, it does not take much speculation to entertain the hypothesis that our Ruling Class does not want you to read that way (and, on the basis of recent ceremonial activities at the White House, they probably do not even want to you be educated in order to read that way). If this is true, then they are depriving us of our very humanity, which means that there longer-range goal of enslaving us may be nearer than we think!

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