Reading Up on Health Care, or Maybe Not

By Michael Smerconish,
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

People are really fired up about the health-care debate – or are they?

We’ve all seen the raucous town-hall scenes on TV. The Pew Research Center reported that 13 cable TV and radio news outlets dedicated almost 60 percent of their airtime to the issue, which suggests people are consuming all they can on it.

But an informal tour of news Web sites yields a different finding. The most read and e-mailed stories have little to do with health care, or the economy, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for that matter.

More often than not, the items that rise to the top aren’t the front-page stories that dominate the news cycle. Many are more banal in nature.

A quarterback controversy. A recipe for upside-down cake. The history behind a particular brand of sriracha sauce. These seem to hold us more rapt as an audience.

Even with health care, it’s not an analysis of the president’s initiative that drew readers and talk-radio callers. It was the aggressive behavior of town-hall attendees.

It’s all very Seinfeld. Remember when Jerry and George discussed pitching a pilot to NBC for a show about nothing? The Seinfeld we were watching, of course, was that show. It flaunted its aloofness and reveled in its world of close-talkers and soup nazis.
And we ate it up.

It’s the same with news consumption. Sure, people want to read about issues. But ask them what’s really interesting and they’ll wander off the front page in favor of a more personal or offbeat story. That retreat was on full display last week.

On’s most-viewed list, the tragic story of the Philadelphia-area family affected by the crash over the Hudson River was at one point supplanted by a piece about banning smoking on the beach at Seaside Heights. (The poll accompanying the story found that respondents rejected the idea, 54.9 percent to 43.7.)

Leading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Web site at the same moment was a 296-word story about a bomb-sniffing police dog named Rusty, who was laid to rest on Wednesday, four years after retiring from the force.

Among the most widely distributed at the New York Times’ site was Brad Stone’s report on Americans’ increasingly common habit of checking e-mail or Facebook before “swinging their legs to the floor and tending to more biologically urgent activities” or eating breakfast.
Meanwhile, a piece by Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin led that paper’s site a full three days after it was first published. In “The lost art of reading,” Ulin lamented his inability to “still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine.” Our “over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted,” rarely affords such a luxury, Ulin wrote.

Indeed, the very fact that I’m polling Web sites’ most popular items probably evidences those thoughts. But with the warp-speed information cycle showing no signs of slowing down, what explains the interest in reading about a euthanized police dog?

Perhaps the confrontational nature of political debate drives Americans to less rocky ground. A Gallup survey released this month found that 47 percent of respondents deemed booing members of Congress an abuse of democracy; 59 percent felt the same way about shouting down supporters of the president’s plan.

Or maybe it’s a reflection of a longing for quieter stories. We know there are individuals out there driven to yell at a town-hall meeting or rant about the president’s birth certificate. But my hunch is that the silent majority want to think about sitting on a beach – whether smoking is banned or not – with a book and a dog by their side. We want to remember waking up to something other than the sound of a ring tone. We’d like to relive the uninterrupted breakfasts we shared with our parents.

“What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age,” Ulin wrote. He decides that reading a book – with “the focus it requires” – is best to beat back that encroachment.

Maybe he’s right. But when the information undertow proves too strong to counter, reading about Rusty may be the happiest medium out there.

About the Writer

Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via the Web at