Health Care Debate Triggers Mass Confusion

by Randy Shaw on November 3, 2009

As the health care debate dominates President Obama’s first year, polls show that most Americans are confused. This is not surprising. Unlike other fiercely fought national issues – the Iraq invasion, tax policies, abortion rights – health care does not even have people with similar ideologies on the same page. Clearly, reforming the U.S. health care system is extraordinarily complex, and only experts in the field could be expected to understand all of the details. But the confusion in this case involves core provisions, and is heavily attributable to two factors. First, the media demands ongoing “breaking news” on the health care debate, so it runs with reports that are unsourced and/or untrue. Second, when some Senators and Congress members freely spout false and ridiculous claims – such as Joe Lieberman’s assertion on Sunday’s Face the Nation that the government has not previously operated a health care system – the media remains silent.

If you are a regular reader of newspapers, online political sites and cable and/or traditional television news, you are probably pretty confused about where matters stand on health care reform. It seems that rarely does an hour pass without some new “breaking news” from “White House sources,” or from people allegedly “close to” Senator Reid or Speaker Pelosi.”

So no matter how secure you feel in your knowledge of where the legislative process is going, this certainty dissolves by the end of the day, or even within hours.

What’s going on here?

The Media Demands “Breaking News”

There emerged last week a great “inside baseball” debate among bloggers regarding the Huffington Post’s reliance on bold faced, big type “Dramatic Headlines.” Some forgot that this is how newspapers have long been sold, and that online publications have even a greater need to differentiate themselves from other sites by highlighting that “Something Big Has Just Happened.”

When you have a very long running story like the health care debate, editors require some new angle. And bloggers, reporters, journalists, and pundits either come up with something new, or find themselves excluded from covering the controlling political issue of 2009.

That’s why we constantly confront “breaking stories” about Obama or Reid or Pelosi’s “true” agenda re the public option. There is not enough attributed sources necessary to fill the hourly hunger for new angles, so unsourced stories seeking to alter or undermine our prior understanding fill the gap.

Stories based on unsourced or unattributed revelations can be valuable – if true. But the blizzard of such stories has left many unclear who or what to believe, and spawned internal fights among progressives that could have been avoided if people did not quickly act upon the latest “breaking news” tidbit.

Ignoring Falsehoods

Remember when we were told that the traditional media had learned its lesson from the lead up to the Iraq War, and would become more willing to challenge statements by presidents and other politicians? Perhaps those who learned this lesson have been part of the newspaper industry’s layoffs, or politicians only agree to be Sunday talk show guests upon the condition that nothing they say will be challenged.

CNN’s ratings are floundering not because of its lack of ideology – polls show viewers find it equally liberal as MSNBC – but rather its reliance on pundit opinions rather than facts. Since these pundits are not challenged by their recitation of falsehoods about health care, viewers are fed completely inaccurate information from a news division that should know the truth.

The ignoring of falsehoods explains why the demographic that most watches television news – the over 60 crowd – is also the most confused as to health reform. It also may explain why so many erroneously believe a public option will kill Medicare, or otherwise weaken their existing coverage.

The Cost of War

The traditional media’s refusal to confront politicians is most evident in the utter failure to ask pro-Iraq War Senators – or those now clamoring for more troops in Afghanistan – how they can oppose universal health care on fiscal grounds when they support much steeper costs for wars.

If anyone can recount a mainstream news figure challenging a Senator or “Blue Dog” opponent of a robust public option over their hypocrisy in citing the alleged high cost of health reform when they back far more costly and unnecessary wars, please send me the facts. I have yet to hear it.

Instead, the media gives false credibility to claims by insurance company-owned politicians that their real motivation is fiscal prudence. No matter that the prospect of large budget deficits never deterred these politicians from supporting wars of choice or deficit-creating tax breaks for the rich.

The traditional media has failed again. No wonder newspaper readership continues to sharply decline (the San Francisco Chronicle again led the nation with a 25% circulation drop), and those under 35 feel more comfortable getting their news from Jon Stewart than from television news shows.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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