Howard Kurtz, the most influential media critic in all the land, thinks media coverage of health care has been just dandy:
Alexandria, Va.: Overall, I think the fabled mainstream media has done a great job covering protests and opinions on both sides of the health-care debate, but they get a D- on presenting an overall, easy to understand what it all means. I've been disappointed that controversy, over detailed analysis wins yet again. Sorry, those multiple Web links to copies of the bill don't help. This should be a major national debate, but overall, the coverage is too much flash and not enough substance.
Howard Kurtz: I'm going to partially disagree. If you look at the major newspapers, and the recent Time cover story, there has been a lot of detailed substance published about almost every aspect of the health care debate: public option, Medicare reimbursement, industry lobbying, end-of-life counseling, you name it. It's out there. It's not hard to find.
As Eric noted earlier, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence In Journalism found that recent health care coverage has focused overwhelmingly on politics and protests, and 70 percent of Americans say the media has done a fair or poor job of explaining the details of health care proposals.
But Howard Kurtz says the media has done a fine job, so don't worry if the public has mostly seen stories about yelling and screaming, and doesn't think the media have explained the policy details.
I know it's only Tuesday, but this has to be the lamest allegation of media bias you'll see all week. Here's Newsbusters' Rich Noyes:
Gibson Worries: 'Will Obama Go to the Mat for a Public Option?'
August 18, 2009 - 11:40 ET
On Monday's World News, ABC's Charles Gibson channeled the worry of liberal activists over the Obama administration's seeming retreat on government-run health insurance, the so-called "public option." Gibson fretted about Obama to White House correspondent Jake Tapper: "Will he go to the mat for a public option?"
Was Gibson really "worrying" or "channeling" or "fretting"? Uh, no. He was asking a question. Asking the rather obvious question, actually. Here's the exchange in question:
JAKE TAPPER: The White House says the President has not backed off anything, he still thinks the public plan is the best way to do this, but he has not drawn any lines in the sand.
CHARLES GIBSON: But will he go to the mat for a public option? He says now it's just a sliver of health care reform. But earlier he said it's a lot more than that.
Pretty unremarkable. Yet Noyes sees it as evidence of ... something.
That's what PoliticsDaily.com claims:
The pressure on advertisers has become a politically charged debate about the right to free speech, censorship and what constitutes hate speech.
That's a rather dramatic, misinformed, and GOP-friendly spin to the put on the unfolding story. Do editors at PoliticsDaily.com not understand what "censorship" means in terms of free speech? Because if they did they certainly wouldn't use it in connection to an advertising boycott story. (Of course, only the government can censor free speech.)
The outlines of the story are pretty simple. Glenn Beck said some hateful things on his Fox News show and activists began contacting advertisers urging them not to be associated with that kind of hate. To date, nearly two dozen companies have pulled their ads off Beck's show.
If PoliticsDaily.com wants to take another stab at it, we'd sure love to hear how any of that is even remotely connected to "censorship" and questions of "free speech." Because as of right now, Beck has the right to say whatever he wants on his show. And advertisers have the right not to support him.
Where's the "censorship"?
Newsbusters' Tom Blumer sees some kind of liberal media conspiracy of silence in the lack of media coverage of a Gallup poll finding that more people self-identify as "conservative" than "liberal" at the state level as well as nationally. Blumer seems to think this finding has great significance, though Gallup provides no historical data for comparison, so we don't know which way things are trending.
And, as I've mentioned a time or two in the past, such labels are so imprecise and meaningless to many if not most Americans that these self-ID questions are of limited value. Indeed, the Gallup poll itself provides evidence that these questions don't mean much: Gallup finds that even in Massachusetts and Vermont more people self-identify as "conservative" than "liberal."
But Blumer thinks this one-off poll that is quite consistent with years and years worth of national-level polling is hugely important. Maybe that's because he doesn't really "get" how polling works. Here's Blumer:
The margins may not be "statistically significant," but the reported result still shows conservatives on top in HI (+5), VT (+1) and MA (+1). I also have to wonder how you can have a 5-point or more margin of error in a poll of 160,000 people. [Emphasis added]
Wonder no longer, Blumer:
Results are based on telephone interviews with 160,236 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 2-June 30, 2009, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.
The margin of sampling error for most states is ±3 percentage points, but is as high as ±7 percentage points for the District of Columbia, and ±6 percentage points for Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Delaware, and Hawaii.
That little bit of explanation was carefully hidden in the Gallup article Blumer linked to and quoted. On the first page. Under the heading "Survey Methods." A heading that was presented in bold font.
From Jonah Goldberg's August 18 column in the Los Angeles Times:
Imagine if President George W. Bush, in his effort to partially privatize Social Security, had insisted that the "time for talking is over." Picture, if you will, the Bush White House asking Americans to turn in their e-mails, in the pursuit of "fishy" dissent. Conjure a scenario under which then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) derided critics as "evil-mongers" the way Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently described town hall protesters. Or if then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had called vocal critics "un-American" the way Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) did last week, or if White House strategist Karl Rove had been Sir Spam-a-lot instead of David Axelrod.
The good news is that the topic of health care reform was, by far, the most covered topic in the news media last week, according to Journalism.org. It was a landslide.
Cable news barely covered any other topic last week:
That's good, right? The country's having a robust discussion about an important public policy issue, right?
Yeah, not quite. Also from Journalism.org [emphasis added]:
Last week's coverage of the proposed health care legislation was overwhelmingly focused on the two p's—politics and protests. Those two storylines accounted for about three-quarters of the overall coverage of the subject.
So much for a public policy discussion. Wonder if that media obsession with the three p's (politics, protests and process) has anything to do with the fact that most Americans think the health care coverage debate has been rather abysmal.
A Pew Research survey earlier this month found:
The public gives news organizations low marks for their coverage of health care. More than seven-in-ten say the media has done either a poor (40%) or only fair (32%) job explaining details of the various proposals. Just 21% offer a positive rating of this coverage: 4% excellent and 17% good.
Robert Kuttner was referring to what's "off" about the arguments used against health care reform, but he could just as easily be describing what's missing from the media's coverage of this debate:
Something is severely off when economically stressed Americans confront members of Congress about "death panels" in the Obama health plan. The rumors, fanned by talk radio with a little help from Republicans, are false and even delusional. Yet the anger, if misdirected, is genuine.
People should be plenty angry about their jobs and their mortgages and their health insurance. With health care, however, virtually all of the fears attributed to the Obama health reform efforts more accurately describe the existing private system.
It is private insurance companies that ration care by deciding what is covered and what is not. Private plans limit which doctor and hospital you can use, define "preexisting conditions" and make insurance unaffordable for tens of millions. For many, all this can cause suffering and sometimes even death. Our one oasis of socialized medicine, Medicare, has the most choice and the least exclusion.
The apparent ignorance of the reality of health care on the part of a significant portion of the public is understandable. Many in the media, giving legitimacy to demagogically driven claims that the Democrats want to legislate "death panels" and even sacrifice Grandma, are committing malpractice in their reporting on the current state of health care. They have grossly distorted the debate -- pushing the issue of whether rationing will occur under a new system, while ignoring the fact that it is currently rampant; refusing to cover real-life evidence of insurance company malfeasance. Perhaps most egregiously, they have obfuscated the truth and willfully refused to challenge public plan option opponents with a simple fact: Medicare is a public plan.
Via Darren Hutchinson, Here's how a CBS report about AARP and health care begins: "CBS News has learned that up to 60,000 people have cancelled their AARP membership since July 1st, angered over the group's position on health care."
CBS News "has learned" that "up to" 60,000 people have cancelled AARP memberships? Well, that sounds awfully fishy, doesn't it?
"Up to 60,000 people" could accurately describe 60,000 people, 50,000 people, 30,000 people, or two dozen people. Generally, people use the phrase "up to ____ people" when they want to focus your attention on a large number they don't know is actually true. If CBS actually knew there were 60,000 cancellations, they'd just say "60,000 people," without the "up to" wiggle words.
So, since CBS apparently has no idea how many people have cancelled memberships, how have they "learned" about this? It seems rather obvious that CBS "learned" this not by gaining access to AARP's records, or from an AARP official, but from the American Seniors Association, a right-wing fundraising organization featured in the CBS report. ASA is urging seniors to mail them torn-up AARP membership cards, which ASA will reward with half-off membership.
There's no reason to take ASA's claims about AARP's membership seriously -- they are not in any position to know, and have a clear interest in inflating the number of cancellations. That's almost certainly how CBS News "has learned" about the AARP membership cancellations -- ASA told them. And, since ASA has no idea how many people have actually cancelled AARP memberships, and ASA has a clear motivation for inflating those numbers, CBS had to include the "up to" wiggle words.
In short, that first sentence of the CBS report is a pretty clear indication that you should ignore everything that follows.
But ... Let's not. CBS' Sharyl Attkisson next introduces video of Elaine Guardiani saying she is "extremely disappointed in the AARP." Who is Elaine Guardiani? According to Attkisson, Guardiani "has been with AARP for 14 years." What does "with" mean? Employed by? A member of? Who knows. Attkisson's description is painfully vague. Why is she disappointed? Do her concerns have merit? Does she have some expertise we should know about? Who knows. Attkisson doesn't tell us.
And is the Elaine Guardiani who is "extremely disappointed in the AARP" the same Elaine Guardiani who wrote this about Barack Obama last in March of 2008?
I think the church DOES represent Obama's views. He was raised as a moslem then a perported christian ( although do not believe this). this church represents radical racial and hateful views and emulates moslem thinking. He could not be a member for 20 years without knowing about these inflammatory views and by his presence, he condones those views and espouses to them. As President of the United States, he cannot simply care about black people but must care about all people. Too many blacks think of themselves as a separate America. Do we want such views in the white house?
I think not!
Or this last in May of 2008?
"What's next -- am I going to be called a racist if I don't vote for Barack Obama?"
After airing Guardiani's vague criticism of AARP, Attkisson then turned the segment into an ad for ASA, announcing that CBS' "camera was there Friday when the mail came... Letters were filled with cut-up AARP cards." Awfully convenient that Attkisson and her camera crew just happened to be there as ASA was opening their mail, isn't it? Too bad she didn't tell viewers that the cut-up AARP cards were not a spontaneous demonstration of dissatisfaction with AARP, but rather a response to ASA offering financial inducements to send in the cut-up cards. Then again, that would have been journalism rather than an infomercial.
So, who is American Seniors Association? According to Attkisson's report, ASA is a plucky underdog conservative alternative to AARP, benefiting from spontaneous mass disgust with AARP and fighting valiantly for seniors.
But if you do a Nexis search for "American Seniors Association" -- or their previous name, "National Association of Senior Concerns," it seems they appeared virtually out of nowhere, just in time to get a profile on CBS News. Prior to the last week or so, they had sent out a press release about immigration, and announced plans to hold a Republican presidential primary debate (a debate that never happened.)
So who are they really? ASA's web site makes clear they don't want you to know who they are or what they support. Take, for example, "ASA's Four Pillars":
That's it. What does it mean? Who knows! But send your check today!
Go to ASA's "History" page, and you'll find nothing more than a few paragraphs ostensibly written by former Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall -- paragraphs that don't say much of anything beyond "We want to represent your values to government. We don't want to represent government's values to you."
Which values are those? What does this mean? Who knows! But send your check today!
What kind of organization is ASA -- a charity? A foundation? Is it a nonprofit, or a for-profit business? Who knows! ASA's web page doesn't say, and Attkisson doesn't tell us. But send your check today!
UPDATE: Let's say, just for the fun of it, that ASA has actually received torn-up AARP cards from 60,000 people. And let's say, just for the fun of it, that they proved to Attkisson that they received 60,000 torn-up AARP cards. Is there any reason -- any reason at all -- to think those people actually cancelled their AARP memberships? Because I'm pretty sure simply cutting up your card and mailing it to some third party doesn't cancel your membership.
Yesterday's New York Times:
For Mr. Obama, giving up on the public plan would have risks and rewards. The reward is that he could punch a hole in Republican arguments that he wants a "government takeover" of health care and possibly win some Republican votes.
Really? What indications are there that this would actually happen? Which Republicans have said that if the public plan is dropped, they'll sign on? What in the GOP's recent behavior towards Democratic Presidents -- say, over the past 40 years or so -- suggests they will abandon their "government takeover" arguments, much less sign on to health care reform that does not include a public plan but is still significant?
The Times, of course, doesn't address any of those questions. Several paragraphs later, it even acknowledges that "whether a co-operative would actually bring Republicans on board with Mr. Obama is unclear." The closest the article comes to providing any reason to think that might happen is a quote by Republican Senator Richard Shelby saying "we ought to look at" the idea of replacing the public plan with a co-op model.
For that matter, the article provides exactly zero evidence, no matter how weak, that dropping the public option would even win over conservative Democrats.
The notion that dropping the public plan will win the support of Republicans, and get them to drop their arguments about a "government takeover" is based on the assumption that conservatives are debating and negotiating in good faith. That's an assumption the media has little if any reason to make, and significant reasons to be skeptical of. But it regularly underlies media coverage of public policy debates despite the frequency with which it is shown to be baseless. This Times article is just an example -- and not even a particularly egregious one at that.
Menachem Rosensaft, Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, writes at HuffPost:
One stark difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Democrats appear to be far more willing to confront and publicly denounce bigots and extremists in their own fold. This has been highlighted by the GOP leadership's failure to condemn Rush Limbaugh's divisive, race-baiting diatribes...
By tolerating and encouraging Limbaugh, the Republican leadership is fomenting racial and ethnic hatred that could have disastrous consequences for our country. Limbaugh's extremist rhetoric is transforming the Republican side of the American political discourse from one of legitimate political and ideological disagreement among fellow citizens into a demonization of the "other," that is, everyone who is non-white, non-fundamentalist Christian and non-conservative.