Why Small Things Get Big Attention

Steven Taylor makes a point I made on Wednesday’s edition of OTB Radio (“AIG Bonus Brouhaha“) about why seemingly minor matters resonate with the public while major issues often don’t.

[W]hile broad and complicated policy may not fully register in the minds of the public, a smaller, specific and easier to understand action can capture public attention and lead to substantial reactions, that in turn can galvanize the media and the congress.


Or, more to the point, if a company needed $170 billion ($170,000,000,000) just to survive how could anyone in the company deserve a bonus? This question is made several levels of order more intense when the company in question was at the heart of the current financial crisis that has so damaged the global economy.

The above is far more easy to comprehend than issues of mortgage based derivatives and esoteric financial instruments that have been sliced and diced to the point that no one knows what they are worth and how such items led to the economic situation we currently find ourselves in.

He reiterates this point in response to Steve Verdon’s post on quantitative easing in which he notes that while “everyone [is] getting all worked up over a trivial issue, the AIG bonuses, what has gone mostly un-noticed by the chattering class, is that the Fed is going to implement quantitative easing.”  One is easy to understand — and thus get outraged over — and the other makes most of our eyes glaze over.

Photo by Flickr user johnnyalive under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    Ever was it thus. See

    War of Jenkin’s Ear

  2. odograph says:

    We should have at least one line about the structural problem these bonuses may represent.

    Taleb called it “heads I win, tails you lose.”

    Actually I think Hamilton and Taleb are on the same page on this, the reason I’d thrown 2 or 3 links to the Hamilton piece earlier this week.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Do these complex issues overwhelm professional journalists? Isn’t they who play up or play down stories? With some stories don’t they attempt to educate at least partly (think global warming)?

    I just can’t blame the masses when the professional journalists are failing us so badly.

  4. There is little doubt that journalists are part of the problem.

    However, I will say, being the capitalist that I am, that news (TV, radio, print, web-based, whatever) give the people what they want.

    My guess is that a serious discussion of the broader details would get lousy ratings.

    And really, the press follows often what the public reacts to—the public sees the bonus issues and the press is more than happy to cover it.

    Heck, even in normal times people would prefer to see news about kidnappings and shark attacks than what Congress is doing what is going on the wider world.

    I am always reminded that the major news story just prior to 9/11 was the Condit/Levy business–and there is no way in the world that was the most important news of that day. And yet, that’s what people wanted to watch (depressing as that may be).