Why Americans Are Miseducated About Health Care Reform

Last week, I interviewed Trudy Lieberman, a veteran journalist, who has reported on health care and consumer issues for over thirty years. I asked Lieberman to grade the media’s performance in explaining the issue of reform to the American people.

Initially, she gave the media a C-. Then she seemed to rethink her overly sunny estimation and recalculated. She concluded, “I would give them an F.”

Lieberman’s main beef is the way the media has been covering the health care reform debate like a horse race, or as she put it, the “Who’s up; who’s down? Who’s winning today? Does Pelosi have the votes? What’s going to be the game-changer? What should Baucus do because he can’t get the votes out of his committee?”

A media consumed with tracking Obama’s popularity has failed to educate the American citizenry about the key elements of the debate. Ask any 30 Americans to define Obama’s plans for subsidies, mandates, insurance exchanges, or the public option, and you’re likely to hear 30 different answers. That’s because the media has been reporting on health care issues as if gossiping about the conflicting personalities crowded in any high school cafeteria.

Though many so-called journalists are guilty of this crime, I offer ABC’s Rick Klein as merely the latest example of this watered down breed of journalism. On his blog, Klein goes on for some length about the various superficial aspects of the reform debate with which we all are well-acquainted. Fasten your Waders. We’re going in.

Did you know the campaign is over, and President Obama won? Well, Rick clears up any confusion regarding who the president is in his first paragraph. He transitions smoothly into some meaningless gossip about how things are “getting personal” in the brawl for reform. As proof of this, he cites President Obama during his interview on 60 Minutes. “You know, I intend to be president for a while, and once this bill passes, I own it … I’m the one who’s going to be held responsible.” … Me-ow … ? I guess?

Rick promptly dives into some poll numbers, the favorite past time of desk jockey journalists. This is the horse race aspect of coverage that Lieberman detests so profoundly. Is Obama up this week? Did Joe Wilson hurt him? It’s hard to hear anything over the breathy excitement with which Rick quotes ABC Polling Director Gary Langer. Why interview a health care expert when one can shove a microphone in the face of a man whose skill set entails reading numbers aloud?

Just in case you weren’t taking Rick very seriously by now, he drops this bomb: “Bottom line: right now, voters are almost exactly where they were before the speech,” an almost breathtakingly uneducational remark from George Stephanopoulos, who I’m being told is a very serious man whose thoughts matter.

Rick then types out more polls for you to read.

Then he writes about tea parties protesters.

He quotes someone at Politico on more horse race matters.

He brings up Lehman Brothers (??)

In typical dismissive fashion, Rick devotes little time to the public option. In fact, it probably would have been better for everyone if he had devoted zero time to it, since this is how he phrased the critical matter:

“Back on health care, the public option continues what looks like a long march into oblivion.”

Are we all learning yet?

While no attempt is made to educate his readers about what a public option means, Rick does quote people who think the public option is a waste of time. He writes, “If this is about getting even a single GOP vote: ‘I urged the president to take the public option off the table,’ said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.”

Progressives are always told that we’re not being pragmatic with our public option demands, but in a world where the Democrats have a majority, why are they wasting any time trying to mollify the GOP? It seems insane for the Democrats to devote time and energy trying to placate individuals with whom they have irreconcilable differences in ideologies. Appeasing the Republicans by sacrificing the public option will infuriate and betray the Democratic base, which will result in lost seats next election.

No matter. We return to our very serious journalist. Did you know all this craziness is because of the stupid Progressives? Rick cites Bloomberg’s Al Hunt, “The fate of the Obama health-care initiative could rest in large part with some members of his party’s left wing, who threaten to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” You see, when Republicans scream and cry for what they want, it’s called politics, but when Progressives fight for the public option, they’re being obstructionists.

But just in case all of this seems really one-sided and unfair, Rick reminds us that Progressives aren’t always unreasonable, shrill, hysterical ruiners. He cites Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, who is “offering the prevailing view in House Democratic leadership” when he says, “There will be some threats, but ultimately most liberals will go along.” Hooray! It’s good to know — once they’re through playing make-believe — Progressives will shut up and vote right.

Without pausing to explain what “triggers” mean (because why bother once he’s hit such an amazing stride?) Rick quotes Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La, “I can support potentially a fallback [public option], but only if the private sector is allowed and given a great opportunity to get this right.” It’s about time a politician fought for the private sector. Those folk have had it too rough for too long. Snowe concurs. “We’ll be using the co-op as an option at this point, as the means for injecting competition into the process.”

Again, without defining “public option,” “triggers,” or “co-ops,” Rick muses if these kinds of “compromises” will “get them in the clear.” It’s not important to define the particulars of the bill. All that matters is who’s winning.

Rick unironically transitions into a paragraph about intellectual honesty.

He quotes Politico’s Ben Smith, “Obama seems to lack one item that most presidents find helpful to have in their White House tool box: Fear. On the left and on the right, interest groups and members of Congress have been eagerly enjoying the rewards — publicity, negotiating leverage — of challenging the president or dissenting from his policies.” Here again, the left and the right are presented as two equal halves. However, I cannot recall the last time a leftist interest group held a bill hostage in the same way interest groups representing the pharmaceutical and health care industries have this time.

Rick writes about ads and Joe Wilson.

Rick writes about Afghanistan. (??)

He closes with Ted Kennedy’s memoir release date. (??)

With this blog entry serving as a model, no one should be surprised that Americans are more misinformed and confused than ever about the health care debate. When a hefty chunk of the population thinks Obama is a socialist, it’s almost impossible to educate them about things they should actually know like how the final health care bill with affect their subsidies, age-rating, deductibles, fast-rising premiums, and co-payments. Those media outlets that are trying to educate citizens should be applauded (Good work, Kaiser News and Columbia Journalism Review).

However, the overall education process is made especially difficult when the media behaves in such a disgracefully unhelpful manner as ABC’s Rick Klein demonstrated today.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny’s blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Allison Kilkenny on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/allisonkilkenny

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– Allison Kilkenny


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