Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dear NYTimes, I'm Confused

When certain ideas are prefaced in mainstream media as being 'conventional wisdom' or 'common sense', its a sure bet that whatever follows will be perplexing.

Here's an example, from this morning's NYTimes, listed as "News Analysis":
WASHINGTON — The conventional wisdom, here and around the country, is that the centerpiece of President Obama’s domestic agenda — remaking the health care system to cut costs and cover the uninsured — is on life support and that only a political miracle could revive it. Here’s why the conventional wisdom might be wrong: While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul, the uproar does not seem to have greatly altered public opinion or substantially weakened Democrats’ resolve.
So the first question I ask when reading this is "what is conventional wisdom supposed to be here?". Evidently it's not equivalent to "public opinion", since the author claims a couple sentences later that 'public opinion' hasn't shifted against health care reform, despite the fact that "conventional wisdom" has.

I happen to agree that they're absolutely not the same. But what, then, is "conventional wisdom" in this specific case? The content here that fills out the invocation of the concept of "conventional wisdom", is a narrative about health care being on its deathbed. But why? Where does this come from?

Thankfully, this "News Analysis" article suggests an answer. When the author imagines why the "conventional wisdom" might be wrong she says: "While the month of August clearly knocked the White House back on its heels, as Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans’ unease with an overhaul..." So here's more information about what current 'conventional wisdom' consists of in this article: health care reform is on its deathbed because it faced a series of setbacks in August, when "Congressional town hall-style meetings exposed Americans' unease with an overhaul...".

Now hold it right there. Things are getting really complicated here. Now we read that a spectacle involving a very small percentage of the population "exposed Americans' unease with an overhaul". Yet we read a sentence later that "public opinion hasn't changed", meaning "public opinion" has been steadily in favor of reform. So now we have "conventional wisdom", "public opinion" and a general "unease" among "Americans" writ large. And they are all marching to the beat of a completely different drummer, even though they ostensibly refer to the same exact thing, namely, what most people (say a majority of people) in America think about health care reform.

My hypothesis is that the "conventional wisdom" here and its corollary about "unease" are really just free floating bullshit bouncing off the walls of the echo chamber of mainstream media. In contrast, maybe 'public opinion' here refers to some Rasmussen poll that reflects some sliver of reality.

To call this news article "New Analysis" is a bit like calling a pile of unassembled bike parts "ready to ride".

I'm particularly troubled, here, about the way that the NYTimes and others have handled the "Town Hall" incidents. This article baldly claims that the antics and veinpopping tirades at the events "exposed Americans' unease with health reform". This false on many levels. To make the NYTimes claim about "exposing Americans' unease" true, we'd need to be able to say that the people who showed up at the "Town Hall" meetings were representative of American public convictions in general. But we can't. It's rather obvious that the meetings were an opportunity for the most vocal, deranged, and crazy Right-wing people (who feel like their voices about birth cirtificates aren't being heard, etc.) to come out of the woodwork and make as much noise as possible. It's a smart political tactic, and they succeeded marvelously in causing an 'uproar' by chanting that "Obama is a Nazi", etc.

So why, then, does an article in the NYTimes titlted "News Analysis" claim that this exposed a general unease among Americans?

Analysis here is badly needed. First of all, its now banal that the event damaged the health care reform efforts lead by Obama. But why? Analysis, i.e. critical reflection, suggests not that the events themselves exposed anything about public sentiments, but that the way that the events were appropriated and disseminated in the media involved the positing of certain narratives deployed to make sense out of those events. A dominant narrative that has emerged in the media is that those "Town Hall" freakshows spoke to larger reservations "Americans" have with health care reform. The NYtimes author here is correct to note that this perverse narrative does NOT accord with 'public opinion' (which probably still states, as always, that people want universal health care!). But she only really 'notes' it insofar as she says two apparently contradictory things, of which any thinking person would want to say more. Unbelievable. And we read this in what is, I fear, Americas best newspaper.

Before I wrap this up, I'd like to share the next sentence in the article with you:
"Critical players in the health care industry remain at the negotiating table, meaning they are not out whipping up public or legislative opposition."
Ah. Very nice. In logic we call this an invalid inference. It's a little bit like making the following bad argument:
If I have the flu, then I have a sore throat.
I have a sore throat.
Therefore, I have the flu.
No matter what we call this fallacy, however, its obvious that the point the sentence above tries to make just doesn't add up.

The author claims that "critical players in the health care industry remain at the negotiating table". Let's grant that this is true, although we should reasonably ask why they are 'critical' to the success of reform, and what the political dynamics of the 'negotiating table' are.

But because this is true, we are told that something else follows, namely, "they are not out whipping up public or legislative opposition". According to the author of the article, this is just what the first part of the sentence 'means'.

But we can easily imagine a world (this world, as it turns out) in which 'critical industry players' both 'sat down at the negotiating table' AND 'whipped up public or legislative opposition'. So we need an independent reason, separate from the comment about 'negotiation', to show that the 'industry players' aren't involved in 'public opposition' as well. But we don't get one. We get slight of hand.

This is especially eggregious, because OF COURSE the Industry is "whipping up public and legislative opposition" to real reform. There are many examples. Ironcially, one primarily locus of their opposition is at that "negotiation table" that the author refrers to. But why should the "industry players" have a "critical" say in anything regarding reform? Did we ask the Tobacco "industry players" how best to prevent people from getting lung cancer? I'm sure, though, that there were some 'negotiation tables' somewhere along the line there, so I guess we should conclude that the Tobacco industry was logically prevented from "whipping up opposition" to Tobacco policy reform efforts.

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