Health debate makes TV ill


A key senator had begun to explain a proposal that might help clear the way to national healthcare reform. Television cameras zoomed in as Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, began to explain the potential compromise.

But if you were watching CNN on Tuesday about the time that Baucus mentioned instituting a cost-control commission he called a “Med-Pac on steroids,” you quickly found yourself whisked back to the studio. The senator had gotten into messy details, “a little bit in the weeds,” as CNN anchor Tony Harris said.

Rather than try to explain to its viewers how such a commission might control Medicare costs, CNN cut away to an all-important update on . . . Alberto Contador’s ongoing war of words with fellow cyclist Lance Armstrong.


By all means, let’s recap the story of two big-name jocks man-slapping each other, rather than help Americans sort out the central domestic issue (Snore!) of the moment.

America has a healthcare crisis, yes, and so do broad segments of the media, particularly television news. They have transformed the story of how to fix an overpriced and inadequate care system into an overheated political scrum, with endless chatter about deadlines and combatants and very little about the kind of medical care people get and how it might change.

Campaign-style “horse race” coverage seemed to me to have shoved aside more pertinent reporting, and on Tuesday, that view got some confirmation, in the form of research from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The Washington-based watchdog group found that more than three-quarters of the coverage (by 55 outlets across television, radio, newspapers and websites) in the week ending last Sunday focused on politics and legislative strategy. That means less than one quarter of the coverage centered on current medical care conditions, the details of reform proposals or the effect of healthcare on the larger economy.

“If the debate over healthcare reform is a potential teaching moment about how we take care of ourselves in America versus other countries, how much healthcare costs and the quality of our medicine, that teaching moment so far is passing us by,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project, which examined 244 stories about healthcare.

The complexity of the debate has not been lost on anyone, but even accepting the difficulties, many outlets have shown a dazzling determination to highlight conflicts and legislative timetables while telling us almost nothing about potential changes in insurance and care.

Many outlets have obsessed, in particular, over the likelihood that the legislation would not be settled by this week’s congressional recess.

“Journalists want to be first to identify a turning point, that critical juncture in history when an initiative is doomed to failure or on its way to ushering in a new era,” said Michelle Levander, who runs a fellowship for healthcare journalists at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. “In our rush to judgment, we sometimes overlook the fine point of whether we are calling that moment in history or creating it.”

Fox News, not surprisingly, seems most intent on reporting on the potential failure of President Obama to make this week’s deadline, which he set himself.


Anchor Martha MacCallum seemed almost to be pleading with one Democratic congressman this week to give up the idea of a government-sponsored health insurance option. “Is there any part of you that says, ‘This is not the time?’ ” she prodded.

Jeff Levi, executive director of the non-partisan Trust for America’s Health, said the importance of passing a bill this week has been greatly exaggerated. “What gets lost in the cable TV cacophony is what this is about,” Levi said. “It’s not about meeting a deadline. It’s about a critical public policy issue.”

That’s not to say that the Obama administration doesn’t have itself partly to blame for both setting the goal of early action and pumping up the sense of urgency.

“I believe there was strategy to show that the stars were aligned and this legislation was going to happen. That the time is here,” said Trudy Lieberman, who has followed healthcare and the media’s coverage of the issue for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Lieberman said many reporters accepted with little scrutiny the notion that broad interests -- from doctors, to insurers and drug companies -- would back reform. Her experience in covering the failed Clinton administration health reform effort taught her that those groups might publicly support change while privately trying to kill crucial details that might move legislation forward.

“Now it looks like that’s happening again,” Lieberman said, “and again, we’ve degenerated to the kind of coverage we had in ’93-'94 -- who is up, who is down, who’s winning, who’s losing?”

Both the president and reporters covering the story need to do just what CNN avoided Tuesday and get down in the weeds.

The media, appropriately, reported the Congressional Budget Office’s finding that the Democratic proposal in the House could add as much as $239 billion to the federal deficit over 10 years. But Wendell Potter, a former CIGNA healthcare spokesman-turned-consumer advocate, told Lieberman that reporters routinely fail to assess the huge “costs to society and the economy if reform is not enacted.”

A hole in coverage

That would go a long way toward putting the current debate in Congress in perspective. But it would still leave a gaping hole in much of the media coverage -- caused by the failure to investigate practices around the rest of the world, particularly European-style, single-payer programs.

The liberal media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting and a group of progressive activists delivered a petition Tuesday to ABC News in New York (which recently excluded one of the activists from a forum on healthcare) to demand broader reporting, including an assessment of government-managed health systems.

I suspect some in the big media have tiptoed lightly on that turf for the same reason as the politicians. Better to appear ill-informed about the world of healthcare than to appear open to anything, you know, French.


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