When I was in journalism school, we had a few foreign students who were not yet proficient in the English language. During one class exercise, we were asked to draft a basic news report about a car accident. One of the foreign students described the crash as a "heap of mess."
Everybody chuckled over his description at the time, but you know, I've always liked that mangled phrase for the vivid image it calls to mind.
The news media are a heap of mess these days. I don't mean the closures, bankruptcies and layoffs that plague parts of the industry. I mean the way lots of media outlets are presenting information to the public.
The most egregious examples are the cable television political channels Fox and MSNBC. Fox is conservative and MSNBC is liberal. At one time, each tried to claim it was a legitimate news source, but they've pretty much given up that pretense now. Although they'd like to think they remain part of the journalism fraternity, Fox and MSNBC are not conduits of news but of ideology.
And yet tons of people get much of their "news" from one of these channels. Many people also get their "news" from talk radio, which has an even more tenuous connection to journalism.
This is bad for the news media and bad for the American people. I'm hardly the first person to say this, but it's true: When you get the bulk of your news through an ideologically warped lens, you are not getting the whole picture, and you are therefore less prepared to make sound, reasonable decisions.
Media bias is nothing new, but what is new, I believe, is that these boisterous purveyors of ideology have all but taken over the hearts and minds of large segments of the U.S. population. Once upon a time, the news was the news and opinion was distinct and clearly labeled. Today, it can be very difficult to draw a line between the two.
This brings me, at last, to the health care reform debate. The prevailing assumption -- based on what we hear from dominant ideological media sources -- is that most Americans are strongly opposed to the "public option," an affordable government health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.
But this is not true. A recent poll for The New York Times and CBS News shows that a solid majority of Americans -- 65 percent -- support the public option. They want "Medicare for everyone."
Did you know this? Did you maybe hear something about it but dismissed it after the ideologues said it was B.S.? How come this fact is not the prevailing assumption?
How about this: A poll by Research 2000 of 600 likely voters across Nevada also shows majority support -- 54 percent -- for the public option. The support in Las Vegas is 63 percent.
Naturally, the conventional wisdom among the ideologues who dominate the airwaves is that us independent-minded Nevadans surely oppose such a government intrusion into the health care industry. But that's not the case at all. Nevadans are as worried as anybody about rising health care costs. So, why isn't this common knowledge?
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., certainly knows about these poll results, yet he hasn't been a vocal champion of the public option. He's as nervous as many other Democrats about the vicious reaction from the ideological media if he ventures too far out on this limb.
My advice, for what it's worth, is that Reid should take these poll results and run with them. Nationally and locally, a majority of Americans want bold action on health care, not wimpy, muddled incrementalism.
Other poll results show Reid with a tough road to re-election. In part because he's been a favorite whipping boy for the ideological media, Reid's political clout and experience aren't enough to hand him an easy victory in 2010.
But that's only part of his problem. Another is that Reid is not seen as exhibiting strong leadership, according to that same Nevada poll. This is unfair in some respects. Reid is not a speech-maker, but he's politically savvy behind the scenes. He's a respected leader in the U.S. Senate, but it isn't reflected in his public persona.
That said, amid rising unemployment and sky-high rates of home foreclosure and bankruptcy, it's hard to point to specific things Reid has done to help revive Nevada's beleaguered economy.
The national stimulus package, for all its overall benefit, has barely registered on Nevada's economic radar.
Reid needs a game-changer, and passage of a health care reform bill that includes a public option could be it. Bucking the ideological media is not for the faint of heart. But the poll numbers are clear: Nevadans want true health care reform, not a heap of mess.
They not only want true reform, they need it: Ever-rising health care costs are a major impediment to economic recovery -- for individual Nevadans, for businesses and for the country.
If a majority of Nevadans is willing to contradict the ideologues, why can't Reid stand with them?
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.