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Many Confused by Bailout

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Pulled from a Walter Shapiro column on Salon.com:

A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday found that 43 percent of all voters admitted that they feel “confused” by the proposed plan to stabilize the financial markets. At the same time, voters grasp that something important is happening — 54 percent say, in response to another question, that they are paying “a lot” of attention to the bailout debate in Washington. Pollster Andy Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center, said that it was virtually “unparalleled” to have this simultaneous level of interest and confusion in a policy debate.

I suppose it’s possible that the people not paying attention are the ones who are confused, but Kohut’s remarks seem to indicate otherwise. What these numbers apparently show is a keen interest in the issue but not much understanding of the details. And I have a theory why: our media and political establishment have become incapable of communicating complex ideas.

Sure, if you are the type to read high-quality news magazines/newspapers or do independent research on-line, you can find comprehensive information. But for the majority who get their news from TV, there’s not a lot of detailed information available. TV journalists would rather cover the blame game than the bailout plan’s details and politicians, when given screen time, are more likely to play partisan politics (a la Nancy Pelosi’s now infamous speech) than they are to communicate intellectually with the voters. Even President Bush’s primetime speech was more an attempt to rally support for the bailout than it was an attempt to provide us with comprehensive information (although he did try harder to explain the problem than have most TV journalists).

This is not an easy to understand problem – even for the most in-tune. And, frankly, I’m not convinced many Americans would sit down for, say, a two-hour NBC news special on the crisis and proposed solutions. But we could at least have less finger pointing and coverage of finger pointing and more discussion of details. That’s not asking a lot.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen. What is happening is that public opinion is waxing and waning based on what the stock market is doing. Those numbers are the kind of easy-to-graph info-bytes television news excels at presenting. After this week’s turmoil, I expect public support for the bailout to remain just high enough to give our elected officials the cover they need to pass a bill. But I wish our media was as skilled at conveying complex information as they are at juicing ratings. This is a moment in our history where a well-informed public would be useful.