How the Media is Killing Health Care Reform

Last week I said Obama should stop trying to fight factual errors with factual corrections because Americans don't care about facts or statistics. I should have been more specific. Americans care about statistics that garnish their worldview. They do not care about other people's facts or statistics that do not prettify their values. Farhad Manjoo has an excellent piece about why that's true. He's Slate's technology columnist, but unfortunately in this story, technology is not the hero. Quite the opposite, modern communications technology has made it easier to insulate ourselves in a cocoon of misinformation.

This seems like a timely point to make regarding the health care reform bill. As Steven Benen pointed out, yesterday's NBC poll found that 55% believe illegal immigrants get coverage; 54% expect a "government takeover" health care; 50% expect taxpayer-financed abortions, and 45% expect "government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." That's all false.

I don't like those Luddites who blabber about how "I remember when things were different.." and "Damn Internet..." etc, but Manjoo makes a good point that the news media explosion, facilitated by the Internet, is helping make this culture of unlightenment possible:

Because we can now get our news from sources that reflect our political views--and we can avoid sources that we find suspect--lies and misinformation tend to proliferate and linger. I examined several case studies--the Swift Boaters, the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, and claims that George W. Bush stole the 2004 election--and concluded that it's now easier than ever before for people to live in worlds built entirely of their own facts. We're becoming impervious to rational opposition. Once a substantial minority of the population believes a lie, it achieves the sheen of truth and becomes nearly impossible to debunk.

Manjoo's conclusion is entirely sensible: Obama should stop trying to bring up these facts in town halls to debunk them. It's a bit like the paradox of Ariadne's Thread: When you try to critique something, you often wind up recreating it. A song mocking disharmony would still sound disharmonious; a painting about nothingness will just look empty and lazy; and spending 20 minutes correcting a series of lies and misinformation about health care just gives those lies and misinformation another platform.

So how to fix this problem? Obama could appear on Fox News shows where these ridiculous lies are already so rote they've practically worked their way into the intro music, and debate the hosts one-on-one. Or he could simply forget the facts and make a moral argument about caring for seniors effectively and extending care to the uninsured. Statistics are condiments and nobody chooses a meal for the ketchup. The real meat of health care reform can be moral.