Policy debates aren’t summer popcorn fare

POLICY DEBATES AREN’T SUMMER POPCORN FARE…. Health care policy is complicated. It’s also not especially “sexy” as news stories go, which is probably why so many in the media complained last week that President Obama’s press conference last week wasn’t exciting enough for their tastes.

Michael Calderone reports today that the reform debate therefore poses a challenge for the media. It is, in the words of some journalists, “bad for ratings.”

Discussing the previous night’s low-key news conference, [MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan] said that “cable networks’ ratings go off a cliff” during the health care debate, which eventually “forces the conversation out of the TV.”

It’s not as if the public ignored Obama entirely as he took questions in the East Room on Wednesday night. Indeed, 24.5 million viewers tuned in across the broadcast and cable networks. Still, that tally was the smallest prime-time audience of Obama’s presidency, dropping 50 percent from five months ago. And Fox’s decision not to air the presser paid off: The network won the 8 p.m. time slot with an episode of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“It’s bad for ratings,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart told Ratigan, “but not talking about it is bad for the American people.”

Decisions, decisions. Health care represents one-sixth of the largest economy on the planet, and for many Americans, its financial and medicinal significance are literally critical. On the other hand, some Americans — and a few too many journalists — find it dull.

News outlets realize, of course, that they have a “professional obligation” to cover the debate, but what seems to happen is that some reporters, confused about reform details and fearful of losing their audience, prefer to focus more on process and politics than substance. The reform fight, CNBC’s and NYT‘s John Harwood, said, is “not a journalism-friendly story.”

NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner explained on the air last week, “The problem with health care is that it’s so big and so complicated that the public is never really going to understand all the moving parts of this…. So the public is really always going to be sort of amenable, if you will, to demagoguery and arguments one way or the other that don’t necessarily link to what the substance is.”

This is really the key to the larger dynamic. Opponents of reform are counting on the typical American not knowing the details, which makes them more vulnerable to scare tactics and bogus claims. These same activists are also counting on news outlets a) being afraid to say who’s lying and who isn’t; and b) not beings sure about the details themselves.

It’s not exactly a recipe for a constructive national dialog. Indeed, it’s an invitation for manipulation and/or distraction.