No one ever said it was easy being the informed citizen envisioned by Thomas Jefferson as the sole repository of a sustainable democracy.
You can't switch on the television, lie back and let the cable news channel wash over you for an hour and call yourself informed. You have to seek with a skeptical mind and dig beneath the layer of facts on the surface. You have to winnow a lot of chaff.
On Wednesday the Review-Journal, as did most newspapers across the country, dutifully reported that the Census Bureau statistics for 2006 found the rate of poverty in this country had dropped from 12.6 percent to 12.3 percent, while average income increased slightly and the number of medically uninsured climbed by more than 2 million.
Simple facts, easily understood, ramifications obvious to all. Right?
To illustrate my point about digging and winnowing, I turned to that same day's editorial pages of two nationally distributed newspapers, one the revered but consistently liberal New York Times, the other the lesser known but consistently conservative Investor's Business Daily, where these facts were analyzed and recommendations proffered.
The good, gray NYT editorial said this "seems like welcome news, but a deeper look" is needed.
"The median household income last year was still about $1,000 less than in 2000 ..." the paper explained. "In 2006, 36.5 million Americans were living in poverty -- 5 million more than six years before, when the poverty rate fell to 11.3 percent."
And in its customary paean to class warfare, the NYT noted "the only group for which earnings in 2006 exceeded those of 2000 were the households in the top 5 percent of the earnings distribution. For everybody else, they were lower."
On the other hand, IBD heralded the data as rosy news, pointing out that the poverty rate measures only "income" and ignores the "standard of living," which is raised by "government subsidies, aid, pensions and outright welfare."
In counterpoint to the NYT's look back, IBD's editorial noted that the 12.3 percent rate is lower than the 12.9 percent rate under President Clinton.
"If America's poor were to form their own country," IBD wrote, "they would be in the top 5 percent of the world's income distribution, according to World Bank data."
IBD also pointed out that in "poor" households in America about 43 percent own their own homes, 73 percent own cars, 80 percent have air conditioning, 99 percent have refrigerators and 97 percent have color television.
On the topic of the uninsured the NYT argued, "The upward trend in the number of uninsured needs to be reversed because many studies have shown that people who lack health insurance tend to forgo needed care until they become much sicker and go to expensive emergency rooms for treatment."
But IBD related, "As demographer Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute notes, the U.S. infant mortality rate has fallen 70 percent since the mid-1960s, and 'children in poor families are more likely today to have an annual medical visit or checkup with a doctor than even non-poor children just 20 years ago.' "
The conservative paper in another editorial on Thursday added that 38 percent of the uninsured reported household incomes greater than $50,000, which is above the national average of $48,200. It further noted that 27 percent of the uninsured aren't citizens.
The NYT preached, "What are needed are policies to help spread benefits broadly -- be it more progressive taxation, or policies to strengthen public education and increase access to affordable health care."
IBD shrugged, "In short, America is a country of extraordinary abundance -- no matter how you measure it."
This is more than an exercise in whether the glass is half full or half empty. It is illustrative what it takes to keep ourselves informed.
"The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them," wrote Jefferson in a letter to Judge John Tyler in 1804.
Are you doing your part to be a discerning consumer of news and commentary?
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.