For Immediate Release
Frontline Edits Out Single-Payer
Documentary misrepresented advocates as supporters of a public option
NEW YORK - Silencing supporters of single-payer, or Medicare for All, is a
media staple, but PBS's Frontline found a new way to do
that on the April 13 special Obama's Deal--by selectively
editing an interview with a single-payer advocate and footage of
single-payer protesters to make them appear to be activists for a
public option instead.
The public option proposal would have offered a
government-run health insurance program to some individuals as an
alternative to mandatory private health insurance. Not only is this
not the same thing as Medicare for All, it's an idea many single-payer
advocates actually opposed, arguing that it would leave the insurance
industry intact as dominant players in the healthcare business
In the report, Frontline explained that
insurance industry lobbyists pushed a bill in the Senate Finance
Committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Montana) "that would include
the mandate to buy insurance and kill the public option." That "didn't
sit well with the president's liberal supporters," the Frontline
narrator told viewers. After a clip from public-option supporter
Howard Dean, a full minute and a half focused on protests: "The left
counterattacked in May.... Liberal outrage arrived in Baucus' own
hearing room as healthcare activists, one after another, shouted him
down." Several of these protesters are seen in action, with a clip of
an interview with Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health
Program (PNHP) saying that these were members of her group shut out of
Now, Flowers and PNHP are leading single-payer
advocates--but you'd never learn that from watching the Frontline
program, which never mentions the single-payer concept. Instead,
viewers were left to assume that Flowers and the protesters were
public-option proponents, since that was the only progressive proposal
that had been discussed. As Flowers explained (Consortium News,
When the host, Mr.
[Michael] Kirk, interviewed me for Obama's Deal, we spoke extensively
of the single-payer movement and my arrest with other single-payer
advocates in the Senate Finance Committee last May. However, our action
in Senate Finance was then misidentified as "those on the left" who
led a "counterattack" because of "liberal outrage" at being excluded.
Viewers saw more footage of protesters being
handcuffed and led away, with an unidentified voiceover from Amy
Goodman of Democracy Now! describing the arrests, and finally a
voice was heard saying: "This option cannot be part of the discussion
at a Senate hearing? Now, I think that's wrong."
The audience could only conclude that "this option"
referred to the public option, but this conclusion would be incorrect;
this voice was actually MSNBC host Ed Schultz, a single-payer
supporter, and a fuller version of his quote (5/7/09) would have made
it clear that he was complaining about single-payer being excluded from
Now, let me explain
single-payer for just a minute. The money comes from one source, the
government. Now, you and I pay taxes, OK. The government pays the bill.
It's that simple. Patients are not caught in the middle between
doctors and insurance companies, no game-playing here. There's no
middleman. You know? There's no decision-makers between you and your
doctor. It's a clean deal.
So what Chairman Baucus has decided, this option
cannot be part of the discussion at a Senate hearing? Now, I think
that's wrong. I don't think it's fair.
Frontline's editors responded to Flowers'
complaints, saying that they "understand the frustration of Dr. Flowers
and others in what she calls the 'single-payer movement,'" but that
"it's the work of journalism to report widely on a topic, then find the
sharpest focus for the reporting, unfortunately leaving out much
strong material along the way to shaping the clearest communication
possible in the time or space allowed."
The statement also argued that
the section that
included Dr. Flowers was focused on the power of the insurance lobby
and showed how activists like Dr. Flowers were excluded from the debate
over the bill. The protesters themselves said they were protesting the
fact that they had been excluded from the debate, so we believe we
presented the protests in the proper context.
But in Frontline's presentation,
"activists like Dr. Flowers"--that is, single-payer advocates--didn't
even exist. Having itself excluded their perspective from the
debate--and even misrepresented them as supporters of a position that
many of them actually oppose--there's some irony in Frontline
claiming to have put this exclusion in the "proper context."
This is not the first time that Frontline
has decided that a conversation about healthcare reform should exclude
single-payer (FAIR Action Alert, 4/7/09). The March 31, 2009, Frontline
special Sick Around America avoided
discussions of national healthcare plans. This omission led Frontline
correspondent T.R. Reid--who had hosted a previous Frontline
special (4/15/08) that examined various public
healthcare models--to withdraw from the project.
When Frontline pushed
single-payer out of the debate last year, PBS ombud
Michael Getler (4/10/09) weighed in on the side of
critics, calling it a "missed opportunity." Getler today (4/23/10) published a column about the
latest Frontline omissions, once again finding that ignoring a popular
policy like single-payer is problematic:
It seems to me that
to ignore something that was out there and popular with millions of
people and thousands of healthcare professionals, but not really on the
table, was a mistake. Although obviously tight on time, the producers
should have found 30 seconds to take this into account, because many
Americans support it, yet the deal makers never mention it, nor is the
politics of discarding it addressed.
We're thankful that Getler has once again taken this
view and encouraged a more inclusive discussion of healthcare on PBS.
However, his criticism misses the critical journalistic fact that
single-payer advocates were not only marginalized by Frontline--they
Tell Frontline that their recent program Obama's
Deal should have accurately explained the views of single-payer
You may also want to write to PBS ombud
Michael Getler (firstname.lastname@example.org).
FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.