Friday, August 07, 2009

The Health Care Misinformation Echo Chamber and Idiot America

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, American Professor of Communication and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, co-wrote a book called Echo Chamber in which she describes how misinformation travels from the deepest halls at the RNC to Americans, via the "echo chamber" provided by the likes of Rupert Murdoch's various News Corp outlets, Rush Limbaugh, etc, reprising a theme first treated, and well, in David Brock's The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy.

As I was driving home this afternoon, listening to All Things Considered on NPR, I came across a very good example of exactly how pernicious and ruinous the Republican echo chamber is for democracy and intelligent discourse. In a portion of the program dedicated to the ongoing debate on health care reform, an opponent of health care reform named Heather Liggett, a self-described stay-at-home mom and grassroots organizer, was given the opportunity to explain the rationale for her opposition to what she believes is an attempt to socialize medicine.

It is amazing just how many misconceptions Liggett was able to pack into a four-minute interview, which she garnished with the hard to believe assumption, repeated a couple of times, that the Congressman she was confronting in a town hall meeting was not listening the voice of the majority of his constituents. The representative in question is Lloyd Doggett, of the 25th district in Texas. He was elected with 66% of the vote, which makes it very hard to believe that the majority of his largely Democratic constituency would oppose health care reform.

Luckily, Liggett's interview was followed by a fact-checking segment in which Bill Adair, editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning, was asked to rate some of Liggett's comments for truthfulness (or, rather, their lack thereof.) Liggett earned two "Pants on Fire" and a "False".

Many of the arguments used by people like Liggett in their opposition of health care reform, said Adair, come from a chain email that his organization attributes to a Peter Fleckenstein. It may be that Fleckenstein is the source, or that the real culprit is Larry Schweikart, one of two charlatans whom I dealt with in a previous post titled Health Care and Charlatans. Whatever the case, this is a typical example of how Republican disinformation works: Someone publishes a factually inaccurate piece, a dishonest opinion, or the RNC's daily talking points, and a gang of talk radio hosts, News Corp hacks, christocratic fanatics, and corporate shills repeat it ad nauseam, until it his picked up by regular (and irregular) folks across the Heartland, at which point it starts passing for truth.

Which brings us to Idiot America. Charles Pierce just wrote a very insightful book titled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. It just so happens that, right before listening to the interview with Heather Liggett, I had just finished reading the chapter of Pierce's book titled Radio Nowhere. In it, Pierce argues convincingly that if a host (or an author) "seems to argue passionately enough, then what he is saying is judged to be true, simply because of how many people are listening to him say it." Pierce follows his pronouncement with a study by Professor Andrew Cline of Washington University in St. Louis, who came up with the following list of rules for talk radio success:

  1. Never be dull.
  2. Embrace willfully ignorant simplicity.
  3. The American public is stupid; treat them that way.
  4. Always ignore the facts and the public record when it is convenient to do so.
By extension, we can say that the rules are not just a recipe for success on talk radio, but in the political arena as well. As Liggett demonstrates by buying into and by disseminating the Republican anti-reform rhetoric, lock, stock and barrel, she mindlessly parrots the series of factually inaccurate statements that she picked up somewhere in the misinformation-sphere. It is hard, then, to disagree with point number 3 in the above list: "The American public is stupid; treat them that way." Just think, for example, of all the seniors who are railing against socialized medicine, only to follow their attacks with cries off "Hands off my Medicare!"

If the debate on health care reform has proven anything so far, it is that it is impossible to overestimate the stupidity of the American people. Idiot America is here to stay.

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