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Policing the Debate on Health Reform

ABC's Diane Sawyer claimed (CNN, 6/22/09) the network's June 24 forum on President Barack Obama's healthcare plan would feature "questions from every single vantage point."

Yet, ignoring calls from FAIR (Action Alert, 6/22/09) and advocacy groups such as Health Care Now!, the special did not include a single question from an advocate of single-payer national health insurance—despite the fact that the single-payer option polls well with the public (New York Times/CBS, 1/11-15/09) and is seen by many experts as the best way of expanding coverage to the uninsured while also controlling costs.

In the wake of well-publicized flak ABC received from the Republican Party over the special, the Republicans' position that Obama's plan amounted to a "government takeover of healthcare" was reflected in the questions selected by ABC.

ABC's Charles Gibson asked Obama directly to respond to Republican criticism. Meanwhile, one of ABC's hand-selected questioners said he was concerned with "the big brother fear," asking, "How far is government going to go in reference to my personal life and healthcare treatments?" Another questioner, identified as an M.D., said he was "concerned" with "the government taking over healthcare."

The insurance industry's perspective was also well-represented in the forum, with ABC medical editor Timothy Johnson citing "critics" who say Obama's plan "would eventually put private insurers out of business." ABC also featured a question to Obama from the CEO of the major insurance company Aetna, as well as the head of the Lewin Group--which is owned by another major health insurance company, the United Healthcare Group.

(Four medical practitioners, the president of the American Medical Association, two family members of patients, a former government health official, two human resources managers and a small business owner were also selected by ABC to ask questions to the president.)

David Westin, president of ABC, had defended ABC's selection of guests for the forum, saying, "We will include a variety of perspectives coming from private individuals asking the president questions and taking issue with him, as they see fit." Just days before the forum, Sawyer stated on CNN (Reliable Sources, 6/22/09) that it was going to be "a room full of widely diverse ideas in which people who actually experience the reality of front-line healthcare are going to get a chance to pose their challenging questions to the president."

Yet the issue of single-payer was never raised by either the ABC interviewers or ABC's hand-selected guests, despite the fact that it is popular, and favored by 59 percent of physicians, according to recent peer-reviewed survey (Annals of Internal Medicine, 4/1/08). And despite the fact that even Obama's own doctor has criticized the government's plan in favor of a single-payer system.

In the entire ABC healthcare special, the single-payer option was only once mentioned, and dismissively, by Obama himself, in response to Republican charges that his healthcare proposal is a "Trojan horse" for "socialized medicine."

Yet, tellingly, for the corporate media's most influential media critic--Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz-– the main concern vis a vis the ABC forum was not the silencing of a popular reform proposal. Rather, it was the question of whether health insurance companies and other industry perspectives would be sufficiently represented in the forum.

In a segment on the ABC healthcare forum on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Kurtz stated to Sawyer:

You have the ultimate guest for this special, the president. Why not also include guests from the insurance industry, the hospital industry, the drug companies who also have a stake in this health care battle?

It would be a surprise to many Americans that they do not, in Kurtz's view, have a stake in healthcare reform.

But then again, corporate media's longstanding blackout on the single-payer option shows that corporate journalists have long seen the views of citizens as unimportant to the healthcare debate.

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Isabel Macdonald

Isabel Macdonald is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and the former communications director of the media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). She can be reached at isabelmacdonald1 at Follow her on Twitter:

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