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November 11, 2009
5:20 PM

CONTACT: Media Matters for America

Brandon Hersh (202) 471-3205

Town Halls Making a Comeback?

WASHINGTON - November 11 -

Interested Parties

From:             Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters for America

Re:                  Town halls making a comeback?

Date:               Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It looks like the extreme anti-reform town hall protests from August could be making a return during the November congressional recess. Politico recently reported that "Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said Republicans are 'quietly' planning some 50 in-person and telephone town hall gatherings over the next three weeks to drum up opposition to Democratic health care bills."  

Media Matters has put together background information on the media's coverage of the August town halls, which includes following observations:

  • The town hall protests were characterized as "organic," "real," and "genuine" despite the fact that conservative groups were actively encouraging members to attend.
  • The media often gave a distorted view of the town hall meetings.
  • Fox News featured extreme anti-reform rhetoric and ignored substantive, pro-reform questions from town halls.

More details on those observations (included below) could be useful, should you decide to cover any of the upcoming events.

IN AUGUST, the protests were characterized as "organic," "real," and "genuine" despite the fact that conservative groups were actively encouraging members to attend town halls:

  • Several conservative groups engaged in efforts to encourage their members to attend town halls. Conservative organizations opposed to health care reform -- including FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Conservatives for Patients' Rights -- conducted a campaign to turn out their supporters to attend those events. CPR reportedly "confirmed that it has undertaken a concerted effort to get people out to the town hall meetings to protest reform," while FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity reportedly "organized" the town hall protesters and were "harnessing social networking Web sites to organize their supporters in much the same way Mr. Obama did during his election campaign." [Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, 8/4/09; The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.">8/3/09]
  • America's Health Insurance Plans reportedly deployed employees to "track[] where local lawmakers hold town-hall meetings," "rebut" Democrats. On July 30, The Wall Street Journal reported: "[I]nsurers continue to wage an aggressive campaign against Democrats' proposals to create a public health-insurance plan. America's Health Insurance Plans has stationed employees in 30 states who are tracking where local lawmakers hold town-hall meetings." And on August 5, the paper reported: "The health-insurance industry said Tuesday it is launching an effort to send insurance-company employees to public meetings nationwide this month to rebut increasing criticism of the industry from the White House and top Democrats." [The Wall Street Journal; 7/30/09, 8/5/09]

IN AUGUST, the media often gave a distorted view of the town hall meetings:

  • Dionne: Media "went out of their way to cover the noise" at town halls, highlighted "fringe right-wing view." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote: "There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television's point of view 'boring') encounters between elected representatives and their constituents. It's also clear that the anger that got so much attention largely reflects a fringe right-wing view opposed to all sorts of government programs most Americans support." [The Washington Post, 9/3/09]
  • Kurtz: "[A]nger at town-hall meetings ... became an endless loop on television." Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote: "The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict." Kurtz added: "Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air." [The Washington Post, 8/24/09]
  • Fox News only interested in covering "yelling" and "contentious questions." As Kurtz reported: "In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: 'I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn't get yelled at.' There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, 'Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we'll bring it to you.' " [The Washington Post, 8/24/09]

IN AUGUST, Fox News featured extreme anti-reform rhetoric and ignored substantive, pro-reform questions from town halls:

  • Fox News aired 22 clips of attendees opposed to reform, none of supporters. During the week of August 24, Fox News aired 22 clips in which town hall attendees expressed an opinion against health care reform, but no clips of attendees expressing support. CNN aired three clips of attendees expressing support and five voicing opposition to reform; MSNBC aired one clip against and none in support.
  • Incendiary town hall rhetoric highlighted by Fox. During that week, Fox News provided a platform for incendiary statements about progressive reform efforts. For example, on five separate occasions, Fox aired a clip of an attendee who said at an August 25 town hall for Sen. John McCain: "No compromises! Senator, nuke it now."
  • Substantive, pro-reform questions passed over. Despite providing a platform for incendiary anti-reform claims, Fox News repeatedly passed over substantive and pro-reform questions and comments from the town hall meetings that they covered. While those questions could be heard and read in unedited footage of the town halls online or in local coverage of the events, they were not aired on Fox -- even when the network featured footage critical of reform from the same meetings.

Media Matters for America is a Web-based, not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.

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