For politicians, lobbyists and activists, good news is often bad news.
A recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet reported that the number of women dying each year from pregnancy and childbirth is on the decline. In contrast to earlier research, which had shown little change in the number of maternal deaths over the past few decades, the new study estimated that the number of deaths dropped to about 342,900 in 2008 from 526,300 in 1980.
But rather than applauding the findings, some women’s health advocates reportedly tried to convince the journal to delay publication. “Even before the paper by Hogan et al. was submitted to us, we were invited to ‘delay’ or ‘hold’ publication,” wrote Dr. Richard Horton, the journal’s editor. He did not say which organizations had requested the delay.
Activists were worried that the good news would undermine their claims that maternal death is a major problem that requires a significant investment of resources. A number of important meetings are coming up, including the G-8 summit this June in Canada and the Women Deliver Conference, also this June, in Washington, D.C. Maternal health advocates were hoping to grab policymakers’ attention with a big number.
Before the recently published study, the best estimate of annual deaths was 535,900, from a study that looked at figures for 2005. That meant that activists could tell decision-makers, “More than half a million women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth.”
As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times shortly after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, “Rule one” in politics is “Never allow a crisis to go to waste.” Crises are “opportunities to do big things,” Emanuel said. Bad news gets people’s attention, while good news can induce complacency.
So, for anyone with an agenda, it’s a good idea to play up the bad news and downplay the good news. Any issue you care to name, with activists anywhere on the political spectrum, is subject to this kind of distortion and manipulation. The state of health care, the financial meltdown, global warming and immigration have all recently been portrayed through this lens.
While it is easy to blame activists for overstating their facts, this exaggeration of problems is an inevitable product of democracy. After all, what legislator is going to agree to appropriate money for a problem that’s only kind of bad when there are plenty of other problems that are really bad?
In the case of the study on maternal deaths, several organizations opposed those who wished to delay the article’s publication. However, many of their objections were based more on strategy than on principle. Dr. Flavia Bustreo, director of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, argued that publicizing the news would help to convince policymakers to spend more on maternal health since it indicates that the programs currently in place are working effectively. “To hear confirmation of improvements is good news,” she said. “To us, the good news will maintain the interest of investors. If you don’t show results, that’s the worst position you can be in.”
It is worth remembering that in the war of interests, truth is usually the first casualty.