Right now the U.S. Senate is debating perhaps the most important piece of legislation in a generation, a health care reform bill that will affect almost every American. Of course one would assume that people would be following this news very closely, and would want to participate in an informed and intelligent debate on the issues. One would expect that the media would be devoting a lot of time to a careful explanation of the nuances of various proposed amendments to the bill, so that people can inform their Senators of their preferences.
At the same time the President has announced a major change in Afghanistan strategy, one that may very well affect the security of the United States, and that will cost us billions of dollars. One would expect that people would want to take a serious look at the options for solving this difficult problem, and debate them in a rational manner so that we can arrive at a result that is in the nation's best interest.
Instead, however, we find that when the media covers these issues at all, they spend most of their time talking about the cheap shots that politicians and interest groups take at each other, and the procedural maneuvering either in support of or in opposition to the administration's agenda. When people talk about the substance of these issues at all, they generally don't seem to feel the need to address the concerns of those opposing their positions, but instead keep repeating their own talking points. For example, you would think that anyone opposing escalation in Afghanistan would have the burden of proposing an alternative strategy that would have just as good a chance of keeping the Taliban out of power. Instead, these opponents seem to think that the president could have seriously proposed telling the world that we don't care if the Taliban takes over again. On health care, one would think that those opposing the reform legislation would have the burden of proposing an alternative that would solve the problems that everyone recognizes exist in our health care system, e.g., the gross disparities in charges for the insured vs. the uninsured, the problems of obtaining coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, the administrative inefficiencies and other high costs of our systems, etc. But people seem to feel qualified to express an opinion without explaining how they would solve these problems at all. In general, people don't seem to feel that they need to know what they are talking about before they begin talking.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are unable to carry on an intelligent conversation about these weighty issues is that we are preoccupied with gossip and trivia. Are we more interested in an inconsequential marital spat involving a famous golfer because the media have flooded us with salacious stories about it, or are the media just pandering to our unhealthy preoccupation with that kind of material? And did anyone who read down this far actually think I was going to talk about that? (If you did, you may have that same feeling you get after sitting through an entire news broadcast to wait for the juicy story they have been building up with a bunch of teaser promos, only to find out that the story is a great big nothing.)