The Mainstream Media Needs Hyperbole to Live

Is the Internet subverting democracy? Robert Wright makes the case (via Andrew Sullivan):

The division of readers and viewers into demographically and ideologically discrete micro-audiences makes it easy for interest groups to get scare stories (e.g. "death panels") to the people most likely to be terrified by them. Then pollsters barrage legislators with the views of constituents who, having been barraged by these stories, have little idea what's actually in the bills that outrage them.

It's no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America.

He goes on:

The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy -- in which citizens vote on every issue -- in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn't travel faster than a horse.

It's true that the Internet lowers the barrier to creating information and allows easy access to that information, which helps "micro-audiences" cocoon themselves in corners of the Web. The fragmentation of the Internet allows different groups to create, and live in, their own "split" realities, as I've written.

But here's the rub.

[Be forewarned: The rest of this piece has nothing to do with Obama's health care plan, it's just general thoughts about technology and the media... OK, proceed!]

Wright is interested in how scare stories in one corner of the Internet become national news stories. He blames technology and pollsters. I'll blame the media. The media likes to give hyperbolic statements both a platform and a panning. But statements like Sarah Palin's "death panels" and Joe Wilson's "you lie" seem to provide the only avenue for mainstream media to discuss issues like Medicare cuts and insurance for immigrants. Before mention of death panels, there was no national conversation about cuts to Medicare. After death panels, talking heads faced off on the issue every night for a month.

Last year I wrote a blog post called How Joe Wilson, Sarah Palin Killed the Health Care Debate. I wrote: "Just as Sarah Palin's death-panel blathering obscures what should be a substantive debate over how to cut Medicare costs without harming services, Joe Wilson's locker-room shout-out caricatures the real controversy about health care for illegal immigrants." Regular commenter John Thacker objected:

Quite frankly, this is completely untrue. The media ignored the "real controversy" until Joe Wilson's screaming...

No one pays attention to reasonable criticism. Only hyperbole.

Maybe we're both right. What if hyperbole eclipses honest debate in the mainstream media precisely because there is no mainstream media debate outside the shadow of hyperbole? What if complicated issues like Medicare inflation and immigrant care are doomed to loiter outside our attention until some controversial and seductive comment -- "Death Panels!"; "You Lie!" -- turns them into a national fixation? It's our fault, too.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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