Gwen’s Take: Eating One’s Peas and Other Dilemmas

BY Gwen Ifill  July 22, 2011 at 9:12 AM EST

National Debt Clock; photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The national debt clock ticks on in April, 2011. Photo via Getty Images.

It’s a conundrum. We in the news business are constantly justifying to ourselves why we cover the stories we cover, and why you should care.

It is the second part of that formula that confounds news decision makers on a daily basis. Because if you don’t care, you don’t watch. And we kind of like it when you watch.

Different news organizations make different calculations, based on commercial and non-commercial reasons. The numbers tell us that viewers will flock to stories of missing children and women, or to open-ended soap operas like the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony trials.

But when it comes to covering government and politics, things get a little trickier. To re-appropriate a phrase, it’s like demanding that readers and viewers eat their peas. You ought to want to know, but does anyone really want to be force fed?

Last week, as we were immersed in the weedy details of the debt and deficit negotiations, a member of our tiny but powerful Washington Week staff popped his head in my office to say he understood intellectually why the topic was important. But, he asked: “Why does this matter to me?”

It was an important question, and one that I try to factor into my own news decision making as often as possible. But it has been embraced only belatedly by the lawmakers most closely engaged in the death- grip debate preceding the Aug. 2 deadline.

“I think that people out there must watch us and say these people are nuts,” David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal said last week on the Washington Week broadcast. “We have 9.2-percent unemployment. It’s going to be 2016 before we get back to anything near full employment. It’s not clear that the recovery is even getting better. And so I think this must be seen out there as people who are not really dealing with our real problems.”

Slowly and not so surely, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seem to grasp this. Every day, both sides appear to be backing away from the fiscal default cliff. President Obama periodically trots out a doomsday scenario that predicts a stuttering economy could come to a grinding halt.

And House Speaker John Boehner went farther than ever this week, signaling public agreement with the president — at least when it comes to reaching a grand bargain.

“If we don’t deal with the size of our debt, our credit rating is going to be downgraded,” he said, echoing warnings received last week. “If the United States of America’s debt rating gets downgraded, every interest rate in America will go up.”

Well, that focuses the mind.

The lawmakers must be reading the polls. Americans are exasperated with the inside-the-Beltway maneuvering. But, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, majorities are also fairly clear about what they would or would not accept.

Eighty-one percent say they would be amenable to taxing the rich — defined as people earning more than $1 million a year — and 68 percent think it would be OK to phase out the Bush era tax cuts for those making $250,000 or more. Congressional Republicans can’t like that.

But more than half — 51 percent — would also favor axing funding for the new health care law, and 67 percent would not mind freezing domestic spending for five years. Congressional Democrats can’t like that.

The difference between Washington and the rest of the world seems to be that most Americans are right in step with the Rolling Stones. They know you can’t always get what you want.

But that doesn’t stop people from trying. If the Murdoch tabloid scandal exposed anything during the past few weeks, it has been the lengths folks will go to do things their own way. If the allegations involving the News of the World and Scotland Yard are true — and no one is really denying them anymore — phones were hacked, investigations were swept under the rug and egos were lavishly stroked over tea at No. 10 Downing Street, all in order to feed little more than sensational headlines.

The backlash in the United Kingdom has been as fierce as the schadenfreude evident in some of the coverage.

So another ace member of our powerful but tiny PBS NewsHour staff asked me this week as we were preparing a story on the scandal: “Why should Americans care?”

The answer for this is as for any other story we choose to tell you about. You don’t have to care, but ignorance has its own price.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.