The News and Us

Paul Krugman muses about why news outlets tend to cover the politics and horserace aspects of things like healthcare far more than they cover the policy substance:

The WaPo ombudsman hits on a pet peeve of mine from way back: reporting that focuses on how policy proposals are supposedly playing, rather than what’s actually in them. Back in 2004 I looked at TV reports on health care plans, and found not a single segment actually explaining the candidates’ plans. This time the WaPo ombud looks at his own paper’s reporting, and it’s not much better.

Why does this happen? I suspect several reasons.

1. It’s easier to research horse-race stuff....2. It’s easier to write horse-race stuff....3. It’s safer to cover the race.

I suspect there at least two other reasons as well.  First, news operations, by definition, report news.  And horserace stuff changes all the time.  There's always something new to report.

But that's not so for the policy stuff.  You can write a big piece comparing the various healthcare proposals out there, and once you've done it, you're done.  You're not going to run another piece a week later covering the exact same ground.  You need to find a new angle.  But policy doesn't change all that much, and there are only just so many fresh angles on this stuff.  So if you're dedicated to reporting on new stuff, you're going to have a tough time writing lots of policy primers.

Second, let's face it: most people fall asleep when they come across stuff like this.  Even here in the blogosphere most readers have only a limited appetite for wonkery, and as Krugman mentions, trying to make this stuff interesting is next to impossible.  "I’ve spent years trying to learn the craft," he says, "and it still often comes out way too dry."  And that's despite the fact that he has the advantage of writing for the most educated, politically engaged audience you can imagine.

This is only going to get worse.  I don't think mainstream news outlets have ever been all that good at explaining policy, but they've probably gotten worse over the years as attention spans have shortened and the media environment has gotten ever louder and more ubiquitous.  You really can't explain healthcare reform in two minutes, but fewer and fewer people are willing to sit around for much longer than that.

The fault, in other words, lies not in the media, but in ourselves.  The mainstream media may have written ten times as much about the townhalls as they did about the actual substance of the healthcare proposals on the table, but the blogosphere only did a little better.  Even here in wonkland, the outrage of the day is a much more tempting blog topic than reimbursement rates for Medicare.

Good news!  We're making money so far on our bank bailouts:

The profits, collected from eight of the biggest banks that have fully repaid their obligations to the government, come to about $4 billion, or the equivalent of about 15 percent annually, according to calculations compiled for The New York Times.

This is good news, but I'm not sure it's worth blaring all over the front page just yet.  Here's the fourth paragraph of the story:

The government still faces potentially huge long-term losses from its bailouts of the insurance giant American International Group, the mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the automakers General Motors and Chrysler. The Treasury Department could also take a hit from its guarantees on billions of dollars of toxic mortgages.

The money that's being paid back first comes from the very strongest banks — mostly the ones that really didn't need capital injections in the first place.  They were always the ones who were likely to cash out first, cash out completely, and therefore provide the government with its highest rate of return.  In other words, looking at the results of TARP so far is as distorted as if you tried to get a sense of how an election was going by polling only your own guy's strongest precincts.  You'd just be kidding yourself.

TARP won't end up costing $700 billion.  But these early paybacks account for only about 10% of the total and really don't provide a very good sense of how the program as a whole is likely to turn out.  It's more like an absolute upper bound.

Has Kevin Drum been misled by Fox News?

He writes that the takeaway of this summer's angry town hall meetings--where rightwingers screamed at members of Congress about President Obama's plan to overhaul the health care system--is that actually not that many wingnuts showed up to voice outrage and shake their fists. And he presents what he calls "the optimistic view":

The Fox/FreedomWorks crowd has created some great political theater, but underneath it all not a lot has changed.  If Democrats can just take a deep breath after the trauma of being yelled at all summer, they'll realize that the loons at their townhalls represented about one percent of their constituency; that the public still wants reform and will reward success; that the plans currently on the table are already pretty modest affairs; and then they'll stick together as a caucus and vote for them.  And that will be that.

But has the Foxification of the health care debate drawn too much attention to the wrong players? Kevin is correct that the wing nuts don't matter much. But they are not the real problem. The issue for Obama and for congressional Democrats from certain districts and states is that many (if not most) independents are skeptical of comprehensive health reform--and can be swayed by the predictable GOP talking points: it's too costly and too risky. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, assorted polls

show that support for Obama on health care "is too generalized" and that "too many Americans . . . see health reform benefiting others but not them." Perhaps more important, large majorities of voters tell pollsters that they are generally satisfied with their health insurance coverage and consider their own insurance affordable. (One poll [Democratic pollster John] Marttila conducted found that 88 percent had insurance coverage and 85 percent were satisfied with it.)

Cable media, newspapers, partisan websites, and blogs have had a good time covering the loons of the town halls, and that has made it seem that they are the story. But the true fight at hand is not for the anger-filled hearts and rage-clouded minds of the pitchfork set. It's for the support of the indies. Recent polling shows that Obama still needs to win over more of them; that's the challenge he faces as he leaves behind lovely Martha's Vineyard and returns to the moshpit of Washington.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Full Disclosure: I love M.I.A. I have loved M.I.A. since "Sun Showers" was a single, and I will keep loving her long after anyone else does. Even so, I tried not to get my hopes up for her Sunday show at Outside Lands. The complex rythms, beats, and remixes on Kala can't be reproduced on stage. That leaves just Maya Arulpragasm, which is fine for a club or the back of a record store, but not well suited to a stadium. After a lackluster Coachella performance this spring and that just-plain-weird Grammy appearance, there wasn't much to expect.

Fortunately, her hour-long set took me completely by surprise. The rapper has amped up her stage show, with a troupe of back-up dancers (including two almost identical looking redheads in Michael Jackson t-shirts and women gyrating in neon zebra-print leggings), an IMAX worthy video screen replaying a colorized version of the performance in near-real time, and a wardrobe straight out of a 1980s preschool nightmare. Before launching into the single "Boyz", M.I.A. and her back-up militia dumped hundreds of neon plastic horns into the crowd.

  (Translation: "A lot has changed since I last came here. I got engaged here. And then I got pregnant here. And now I'm really, really scared of this fucking town!")

In short, after several near-misses at big shows in the past, Arulpragasm finally seems ready for her close-up. Which is good, since, although Tenacious D technically performed later (filling in for the Beastie Boys), M.I.A. really had the last word on the main stage this past weekend.

 

Natasha Khan might be a warrior on stage, but she didn't look much like her musical persona, Bat For Lashes, when we met her on a dusty access road backstage at Outside Lands. Absent were the circles of glittery eye-shadow, pastiche '80s outfits and feathered headdresses. Khan is known almost as much for her style as for the haunting lyrics and etheral voice that distinguish her sophomore album, Two Suns. Adorned in a simple red dress and brown moccasins with just a hint of blue and gold around her eyes, the singer/songwriter sipped tea and chatted about touring with Radiohead, building buzz in the States, and life after the Big Apple—not to mention magic carpets, emerald cities and the Freudian psychology of Steven Spielberg.

Mother Jones: Is this what you'll be wearing on stage?

Natasha Khan: No, but I want to be comfortable because with festivals it gets quite sunny. It's not so hot which is good. When we played Lollapalooza, it was like 96 degrees and I was wearing full, like, a sparkly leotard and it was a bit much. So I might wear something a bit more comfortable but I'm not sure yet.

MJ: You went from New York City to Joshua Tree National Park on this album. Why?

NK: I wanted to be somewhere that was just really the opposite of New York. [In Joshua Tree] I set about creating my mythology, I suppose. The duality of the landscapes definitely influenced different sounds in the music. It's almost different fairytales. It felt like the desert and the earth and the nature were connnected to the esoteric, spiritual aspects of the record and the more tribal sounds. New York was very much to do with escapism and, like, disillusionment—being subterranian and dark and the sparkely escapist sort of elements which are more to do with numbing yourself. I started to think of this fable: The album is kind of like I go across to New York, to this City made of glass and emeralds. It's me going through that journey.

Soldiers from 17th Fires Brigade and 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, arrive by air and convoy to assist the Iraqi Army distribute humanitarian aid to the citizens of Faddaqhryah and Bahar in the Basra Province of Iraq, Aug. 18. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Maurice A. Galloway, 17th Fires Brigade, Public Affairs Specialist

What's new and Blue Marble-ish so far this week:

Latest bizarre GOP health care claim: That a reformed health care system might discriminate against Republicans. Huh?

No love from NOLA: Was Obama all talk about the Katrina recovery?

Helluva show: The only thing missing from the health care townhall meetings was sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. 

Bottled water bullies: What the bottled water indsutry in Scotland plans to do in case "the media turns hostile to our cause."

Move over, pavement: And make way for...solar panels?

In the interest of ending family iPod wars, we asked some of our staff breeders to kick down with songs, artists, and albums that they and their young kids both like. We encourage readers to chime in in the comments section with mini-reviews of your own kids' songs that grownups dig and gr'up songs that they enjoy.

Toy Dolls, "Nellie the Elephant"—In 1984, these rowdy Brit-punks re-popularized a ditty first recorded by child actress Mandy Miller in 1956 about a circus elephant that escapes back to the jungle. Huge buildup to a frenzied chorus that makes my 4- and 7-year-old dance like mad; their inevitable refrain: "AGAIN!" (Check out the video here.)
M.I.A., ArularMaya Arulpragasam's 2005 debut has its risqué bits, but they'll fly over the head of anyone under 10. My kids dig the Sri Lanka-born British popstar's vocal quirks and super-catchy, funky beats (even if I’d give Kala, her follow-up record, a C+). In addition to the obvious kid-magnet ("Banana Skit"), my 4-year-old Ruby requests "Pull Up the People" and what she calls the "Bucky" song ("Bucky Done Gun").
Dan Zanes—Suppose I have to acknowledge the guy who repopularized the kids-music-that-grownups-can-stand genre, even if I never want to listen to another Dan Zanes tune until I'm a granddad. A father himself—that’s how he got into this—Zanes mines traditional tunes from around the world for his family-friendly repertoire, bringing on guests like John Doe, Lou Reed, and Aimee Mann for cameos. Pretty cool. But it's also gotten to be quite the earnest empire, with eight albums, compilations and spinoffs, books, a DVD, t-shirts, onesies, stuffed animals, and tote bags. ('m holding out for the action figure.) In short, if you're anything like my family, you will inevitably reach a Dan Zanes burnout point. Say, by age 5. And yes, I am just jealous.
Pete Seeger, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big)—The title says it. If you can stomach Seeger's earnestness, you won't go wrong with his epic collection of traditional American tunes about critters, first released back in 1955. A majority of these 28 tracks are more pleasurable than annoying, with the exception of the vastly overexposed ditties like "I Know an Old Lady" and "Teency Weency Spider." A little creative iTunes editing will do wonders for your sanity.
Mississippi John Hurt, 1928 Sessions—My first baby adored this, it's quiet enough to put kids to bed by, and it's just a damn fine listen, evocative of simpler times. Although from ages three to five I had to skip over a few tunes due to occasionally violent imagery, as in "Ain't No Tellin'" (Don't you let my good girl catch you here/ She might shoot you, may cut and starve you too/Ain't no tellin' what she might do.) But now that Nikko is 7 and enjoys cutting off my metaphorical limbs with metaphorical swords, he can once again enjoy Hurt's sublimely soulful, scratchy, old-time-blues fingerpicking. Besides, it's only a matter of time before he discovers my Straight Outta Compton LP. —Michael Mechanic, senior editor

S.E. Rogie, Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana—Once you get past the album title, this is a bunch of mellow, lovable tunes that allude to nothing more nefarious than romance and maybe a drink or two. Sung in English and pidgin by a master of Sierra Leonean "palm wine" music, who sadly died a couple of years ago.

Need To Read: August 31, 2009

Lots of must-reads today:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So are my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, spanning Friday through Sunday here in idyllic Golden Gate Park, had something of a split personality disorder. The festival’s two main stages, as this map shows, occupy opposite ends of the festival’s vigilantly guarded fenced-off area—and as far as Friday and Saturday’s shows went, the contrast in each stage’s fare couldn’t be more stark.

On Friday, rockers of various stripes held court at the main stage at the Polo Field, from Built to Spill and Silversun Pickups to Incubus and headliners Pearl Jam. Several singers at the main stage, however, were snake-bit that first day, it seemed—both Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sounded hoarse, and both limped through their sets and called on the crowd for help more times than I could count. But while Incubus was hardly spectacular (like their more recent albums), Pearl Jam tore through hit after hit, especially in the set’s second half, when Vedder seemed to loosen up a bit and the crowd chimed in plenty.