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The illusion of being informed


A couple of months ago, I was over at C-SPAN World Headquarters to do Book TV. As I was walking out, a producer told me about an idea they were kicking around: They'd have people take to C-SPAN radio and read the entire health-care bill out loud. They seemed excited about this, and asked what I thought. Well, I asked, were they going to have experts in the room explaining what each provision meant? No, they replied. Were they going to try and translate the legislative language into plain English? Not the plan, I was informed. I told them I didn't think much of the idea.

I was thinking about this while I read Igor Volsky's critique of last Thursday's C-SPAN summit. We in Washington have a tendency to confuse disclosure and information. They both have their uses, but they're very different. As any writer -- and more to the point, any editor -- knows, simply writing everything you've heard doesn't leave you with an informed audience. You need to identify which things are important and which are not, you need to explain things clearly, you need to rely on honest sources, you need to translate experts into English, and much more.

The Blair House Summit had its purpose, but the major impact was distracting the media for three weeks while Democrats figured out what their next legislative step was going to be. Things like reading the plan aloud or wheeling cameras into the room while partisans make self-serving arguments about the worth of various proposals might serve some purpose, but that purpose isn't informing people. Instead, it gives people the illusion of being informed, which might be better or might be worse, but is definitely different.

Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 1, 2010; 10:40 AM ET
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To me this was best illustrated in the coverage of the Blair House summit, which just hammered home the nonsense about it showing the deep philosophical differences between the parties. The Republicans (mostly) spent the 7 hours conflating different approches to solving a problem with philosophical differences and the media jumped all over it. Simply presenting the "fight" between Lamar Alexander and the President isn't informing the audience. You have to point out that Lamar Alexander was simply incorrect.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Not to be a brown-noser, but an "informed" electorate relies on people like you, who can be partisan but still honest about the tradeoffs and uncertainties inherent in any legislation. There has to be a perspective between the extremes of raw data and political spin.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 1, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

The summit achieved the purpose of being the endpoint of the logic, to anyone who isn't a partisan.

The basic idea of the democracy is elections and compromise. The Dems won majorities and then crafted bills which contain concessions to Repubs. Some of them are major concessions. Done. The Repubs shouldn't get more than half a loaf.

Now the Repubs are blabbering about reconciliation. It doesn't make any sense, of course, it's just their attempt at whooping-up a campaign issue. Though you have to wonder how effective it will be: How is it going to look to voters who are about to watch the Repubs line-up with the crooked bankers on financial reform?

Pass the healthcare reform bill NOW, and after another three months it will only be an issue to the full-mooners.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | March 1, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

Great post Ezra. As someone who has attempted to read a bill I found that it gets pretty boring after the first page, no less the five hundreth. Most bills include language which either amends the bill under consideration or amends bills already enacted. A whole paragraph can contain language that changes the language of the bill from "the provision is" to "the provision will be". Major bills are huge because, depending on how you feel, of the curse or blessing of the complexity of the English language.
Reading the bill out loud is not informative as much as it is maddening.

Posted by: dpcret93 | March 1, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Lee, that reminded me of my favorite moment of the Summit, when President Obama said that he hoped people would think about the things that had been said and whether there was a real chance of compromise. If they decide that there's not, well, then we'll just move forward and that's why we have elections.

Damn right. Try to work things out, but if you can't then the Dems just do what they're gonna do and let the voters weigh in later.

Posted by: MosBen | March 1, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

"As any writer -- and more to the point, any editor -- knows, simply writing everything you've heard doesn't leave you with an informed audience."

But it does lead to pointless ratings-whoring horse race coverage, and ratings are what determines a news outlet's worth to society.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | March 1, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Who is served by having a well informed electorate? Certainly not the media. The media wants you stupid, a well informed populace wouldn't put up with the silliness of the US media.

The US news media wants ratings. They are for profit enterprises whose prosperity is tied to viewership. They love the drama of a political fight between the right and the left. To further this drama they (the US news media) have relegated themselves to a he-said/she-said model where events are recapped without any mention of what the objective truth really is.

If we knew that Party A was telling the truth and Party B was lying we would change the channel as soon as the lying started. Nobody wants to sit there being lied to. And some of the lies being told today are so asinine (death panels) they aren't lies so much as gross insults to our intelligence.

In other words: Conflict sells and the truth is boring.

Posted by: nisleib | March 1, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Informing people is great, but we should only require disclosure.

For information to happen in your broad sense, there has to be someone who wants to listen, and someone who wants to say something to that person. That's asking a lot.

Disclosure -- and especially, disclosure in searchable form -- allows the people who really want to know to find something out even from sources who don't want to say. That's valuable.

Posted by: Matt10019 | March 1, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"The illusion of being informed"-- you should put that up there on the Post's masthead.

Posted by: eelvisberg | March 1, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

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