Where's The Media?

In A Health Care 'Debate' Dominated By Screaming, The News Industry Has Been Remiss

August 31, 2009|By Neal Gabler

T.S. Eliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. As we head toward next month's congressional face-off on a national health care bill, the news media have been infatuated with town hall meetings. Over and over, we have seen angry citizens screaming about a Big Government takeover of the health care system, shouting that they will lose their insurance or be forced to give up their doctors and denouncing "death panels" that will euthanize old people.

Of course, none of this is even remotely true. But the lies have obviously had their effect. Recent polls show that support for health care reform - reform that would insure more Americans, would force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions and prevent them from capriciously terminating coverage, and would provide competition to drive down costs - is rapidly eroding.

Maybe Americans should know better. But a citizenry is only as well-informed as the quality of information it receives. One can't expect Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or the Republican Party or even the Democrats to provide serious, truthful assessments of a complex health plan. Truth has to come from somewhere else: a reliable, objective, trustworthy source.

That source should be the media, and there has been, in fact, some excellent coverage of health care, especially by our better newspapers and especially lately when the untruths have become a torrent, rousing reporters to provide a corrective. But overall, the coverage has not been exactly edifying. According to the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of the stories in its recent media sample were devoted to health care, but three-quarters of that coverage was either about legislative politics or the town halls.

Television particularly has been remiss, even without mentioning cable news, which may be the greatest source of disinformation. ABC took some heat from Republicans for giving President Barack Obama a prime-time forum to answer questions about health care in June. But as far as I can tell, it is the only prime-time special that any broadcast network has devoted to the health care debate. Even so, rather than merely host the president, ABC should have had a variety of experts and qualified reporters assessing exactly what the proposed bills will and will not do and who is and is not telling the truth.

To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn't really their job to ferret out the "truth." It is their job to report "facts." If Ms. Palin says Mr. Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Mr. Limbaugh says Mr. Obama's health care plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is truth subordinate to lies, but shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.

Don't think the militants don't know this and take full advantage of it. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and "end of life" counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.

All of this is even more relevant given the death of media oracle Walter Cronkite several weeks ago. He achieved his legendary status, as many have observed, not because he was the reassuring avuncular voice of America, blandly reading the news, but because he was often its truth teller, upsetting our complacency.

It was because we didn't have a committed, truth-telling media that the country marched happily into Iraq, with tragic consequences that should have been foreseen. It was because we didn't have a committed, truth-telling media that the country plunged off the economic cliff with so little warning. And it may very well be because we don't have a committed, truth-telling media that we will fail to get the health care reform we so desperately need.

Why don't we get the truth? Part of it is fear - fear that if journalists dispel the rumors they will be bashed by the right. Part of it is a lack of expertise. Most reporters are not equipped to quickly and authoritatively tell truth from spin on an issue such as health care. And part of it, frankly, is sheer laziness.

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