Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza thinks the media did an "ok job" at a "damn near impossible" task: explaining health care reform:
Wilmington, NC: You mentioned the public "souring" on health reform. I suspect that measure is simply a reflection of the tone of the coverage, rather than an informed opinion. Every conversation I have heard on health reform has been notably misinformed or, at best, uninformed. Seriously, the state of public understanding of the issue and its proposed legislation is a cosmic joke. Do you believe our news media has performed well in the aggregate in informing us on this matter? Do you know of any polling data that might contradict my sense of the utter cluelessness of pretty much everyone out here about this policy?
Chris Cillizza: I think the media has done an ok job is trying to explain what is an incredibly complex and wide-ranging bill to the public.
The simple fact is that explaining an overhaul of the health care system in our country in 30 column inches of a 20 minute television broadcast is damn near impossible.
I think the media has done a terrible job at a relatively simple task. See, Cillizza is right that explaining everything about health care reform is damn near impossible. On the other hand, explaining the basic facts of "an overhaul of the health care system in 30 column inches or a 20 minute television broadcast" is incredibly easy. The media just chose not to do it.
For example, one of the central disputes over the public option was whether or not it would increase the deficit. Opponents said it would, and were frequently quoted as such in the media. But the Congressional Budget Office said that, in fact, it would reduce the deficit. But those news reports indicating that critics claimed it would add to the deficit typically failed to make the point that, according to CBO, this was not true. Had the media wanted to "explain" the basics, it would have been incredibly easy to make sure that every news report that mentioned the public option indicated that it would reduce the deficit.
And the same applies to other basic facts about the reform package. 300 million Americans were never going to understand every aspect of health care reform. But 300 million Americans don't need to understand every aspect of health care reform. Had the media committed themselves to explaining -- over and over again -- the basic facts that everyone does need to know, they would have done a much better job.
Instead, the news media basically punted on actually explaining things and focused on politics and process and minutia, while passing along politicians' claims and talking points without indicating whether or not they were true.
As for the "ok job" part: I'll renew my recent challenge to the Washington Post:
The Post has a polling budget. If they're so convinced that they've covered health care "pretty well" -- well enough that they can devote extensive resources to figuring out who golfers sleep with -- let's see them prove it. I dare the Post to conduct a scientific poll of its readers, asking them a basic question about health care reform: According to the Congressional Budget Office, would health care reform that includes a government-run public insurance option increase the deficit or reduce it?
If the Post has done a good job of covering health care reform, a large majority of its readers should be able to answer that question correctly. It would cost just a few thousand dollars -- a drop in the bucket for a newspaper like the Post -- in exchange for which the Post would be able to brag about how great its reporting is, and how well informed its readers are. And the paper would get to throw the results in the face of the critics Farhi dismisses as "presumptuous and self-serving" people who "lecture" the Post about " 'serious' news" simply "to telegraph that they themselves are verrrrry serious people and that we should follow their sterling example." Won't that be satisfying!
What's the downside? There is none, unless, of course, the Post thinks that the results would embarrass the paper and undermine its claims to have done a good job of reporting on health care.