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GP30Apr03: The Stories You're Not Seeing or Hearing
Monomania. The Iraq Skirmish has vividly illustrated the fact that the media is not covering all the news that’s fit to print. The TV networks and the cable channels reported endlessly on this boring set of mini-firefights in excruciating detail, with far too many reporters “embedded” in Dullsville looking for a war to gossip about that was not happening. Much to the pleasure of the Bush administration, this Iraq-around-the-clock has dragged the Fourth Estate away from domestic matters where rot and decay are the order of the day.
The networks, surprise, surprise, lost market share to cable. Shortsighted economics and bad news judgment have dragged network and even print news top and middle management totally onto the war story, to the exclusion of all other, as news executives try to imitate cable’s low-cost, Johnny-one-note chatter. This is suicide for these media businesses. The networks and the national newspapers derive their strength from breadth and depth, not faddish coverage of the Saddam of the moment.
We’re going to bring more attention here to the stuff that’s not getting reported, war or no war. Even with First Amendment protection, media is not getting to the meat of the matter. We must ask how to get journalists asking 21st century questions that ensure we focus on tomorrow rather than yesterday. The weakness of our newspapers and TV networks is a grievous concern for the Republic. Years ago, when we talked with labor lawyer Theodore Kheel about the media and the New York Times, he said publishers loved the First Amendment because, with that protection, the newspapers could use cheap, irresponsible reporters to get the irreverent questions asked, with no fear of lawsuits if some of the facts were unfounded. But now, the inexperienced cub reporters are no even longer getting to the right questions. Mencken and A.J. Leibling must be turning over in their graves. How do we get the original, out-of-the-box questions and concepts aired? Here are just 3 stories that never get done:
Our Biggest Cancer. When you talk to effective men and women in the healthcare world about skyrocketing costs and abysmal care, they mostly admit they don’t know what to do about it. Healthcare is the nation’s biggest cancer, now spreading at the rate of 15% a year in an economy that is basically not growing. Left to its own devices, it will chew up all our national income in another decade or two. Incidentally, the major networks and the significant national media have all told us that they have postponed the healthcare story until the war is over, but they all intend to get on it soon. So you can expect to hear about healthcare in spades over the next few months, and we hope the journalists will get it right.
Healthcare is a multi-headed hydra, so it’s hard to talk about all the things that are wrong. But probably its biggest ills can be summed up in two ways. First of all, in the developed world, we’re growing old at a mad rate. Policy-wise that means we will have to raise the retirement age, because there are too few workers supporting too many people who have hung up their spurs. But secondly, many old people are continuously sick, fat, and depressed. We have to get them off their backsides, motivating them to work and to take care of themselves. That means continuous care outside of hospitals with much less surgery. Right now we’re trying to fill too many unnecessary beds and are carving up people at an obscene rate.
What media has not honed in on is how we deal with old people. Or about the huge cost of healthcare that serves absolutely no purpose other than keeping the docs busy—somewhere well north of $225 billion, according to analysts of clinical medicine. We intend to post comments exploring Medicare treatment by papers that underline such wastefulness. Oddly enough, there’s fragmentary evidence that suggests that spending miniscule sums in the right way will begin to vastly improve the nation’s health. In a better world we will not be doing superfluous bypasses: we’ll be exercising more, eating more vegetables, and bringing more purpose into our lives. SARS and AIDS aside, we need more preventive medicine that teaches everyday habits that will keep continuing ailments from boiling over into crises.
Cannons for Mosquitoes. We were shocked when the Administration sort of told us that Iraq would cost us $100 billion. Obviously the nation no longer registers pain at such announcements. Let us be clear: we cannot afford these $100-billion expenditures for minor conflicts. These costs are insane and illustrate the failure of our defense establishment to get real bang for their bucks.
What we’re witnessing, of course, are generals and admirals who’ve never seen a weapons system they didn’t like. The smart bombs used in Iraq are just an example of a Pentagon that does not know how to fight cheap. In Iraq, we have used super-cannons to silence the buzz of mosquitoes.
Donald Rumsfeld has been celebrated for wanting to upgrade the military and to fight quick with very agile forces. In truth, he’s gotten little of this done. Even worse, the changes he envisions are not dramatic enough. As usual, our forces are still fighting the last war over again with shopworn doctrine. The only encouraging note in Iraq is the quiet part of the war waged by our special forces where we apparently had some wins that did not cost us an arm and a leg. Mr. Rumsfeld is not pressing for the kind of military we need to fight a stateless enemy who can use one man and a razor blade to take down the World Trade Center.
The media story here is that we have to learn how to fight $100-million not $100-billion wars. On Global Province, we’ve talked about next generation warfare, which leads to the kind of thinking we need if we are to organize around the right threats (see Agile Companies, item 132). The wars of the future are wars of attrition where you must have cheap pesticides that deal with cockroaches and termites that can crawl under rocks if you are using big smart bombs against them. War is all about lasting longer than the other guy, spending less than he does, not depending on overwhelming initial force. Rumsfeld’s $100 billion victories have to be regarded as defeats.
Bankruptcy. Sadly enough, the biggest investment opportunities of the moment are junk bonds and other investments that are sorely undervalued in a fear-wracked business environment. A skillion things are going south, and bankruptcy has never been so good. All the investment action lies in sorting through companies in trouble or healed companies that have emerged from trouble. To turn a phrase, most of us “have never had it so bad,” and both the problems and opportunities in a lousy world economy amidst domestic inertia need much more exploration.
We’ve been debating what the key story is for the media here. Is it the whole of the Clinton 90s, which recklessly extended credit across the whole world and created a global credit bubble? Is it that our major industries (e.g. steel, telecoms, airlines, major league sports, etc.) are all going bust?
We suspect it’s “none of the above.” In 1990 or so, a Fortune writer showed up at our office to ask about the state of the economy, but he already had his conclusion in hand. That is, he said, American business had completed a vast restructuring and was in very good shape, indeed. We told him that the restructuring had barely begun and would go on 'til about 2015, and none of us knew how it would turn out. But he was not in the mood to listen
Well, the restructuring is still going on, and there are bankruptcies aplenty to come. We have barely begun to deal with state governments and the federal establishment, both of which are bust, for example. We are counseling all our clients—Fortune CEOs, money managers, Chinese midcaps—that there are at least 5 more years of bankruptcy before us. So don’t get starry-eyed about our economic prospects anytime soon. That’s only for CNBC, MSNBC, CNN and all the one-dimensional news channels. The story here is that restructuring, bankruptcy, volatility, and economic disallocation are absolutely thriving. If you want to get into the bankruptcy subject, the publications from the folks at New Generation are a must, providing data on companies in trouble, companies that have filed for bankruptcy, and companies that have come off the bottom. To find out more about them, look at item 49 at Best of Class on the Global Province.
More to Come. Healthcare is not providing healthcare. Defense is fighting yesterday’s enemy. Bankruptcy is a staple of our life. But this is just the beginning. We’ll give you more stories that are not being told in weeks to come. Oh, and they will include many notes of cheer as well, because there are plenty of good things newsmakers are not noticing. Cheerio.
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