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War of the Words: How Town Hall Crashers are Transforming Public Opinion

Anthony DiMaggio

Public opinion on health care reform is shifting rapidly.  Public disapproval of Obama's "handling of health care" rose from 42 percent in June to 52 percent in July according to a Quinnipiac University poll.  As the New York Times reports, "President Obama's ability to shape the debate on health care appears to be eroding as opponents aggressively portray his overhaul plan as a government takeover that could limit Americans' ability to choose their doctors and course of treatment."

This ten percent change in opinion in less than a month is dramatic considering that public opinion scholars rarely find such large shifts in such a short period.  What is it that accounts for this dramatic change?  The primary factor is probably not the substance of health care reform itself, since no bill has yet emerged from Congress.  Five proposals are still floating around in committees, and information on which will win the day is scant.  This suggests that some other factor is at work in changing public attitudes.  A more likely cause is the effort on the part of Republicans in Congress and town hall crashers to muddy the reform debate.

It is undeniable that those who are protesting Obama and the Democrats are guaranteed the first amendment right to speak up against government and that they are entitled to be as rude as they like in public forums.  Whether this kind of discourse is harmful to a vibrant democracy, however, is another question.

There is little indication that the screaming and shouting in town hall meetings constitutes an open dialogue on health care.  Sarah Palin's fabricated claims - disseminated faithfully by conservative media - that an emerging health care bill will establish "death panels" that allow the state to kill elderly people - do little to encourage democratic debate.  Town hall crashers often attack health care reform by relying on emotion over substance.  Demonization of the Obama administration for promoting "big government," "socialism," health care "rationing" and "death panels" does much to incite public outrage, while distancing town hall crashers from a productive discussion of reform.

While the liberal commentators at MSNBC stand behind the president and the "public option," Fox News pundits lambaste not only Obama's plan, but single-payer health care.  Very little effort is made to explore the differences between the public option and single-payer, as they are lumped together as a singular "socialist" threat.  My review of all Fox News programming from July 29th to August 11th finds that 18 programs referenced single-payer health care, most of them failing to distinguish between Obama's proposed reforms and single-payer proposals (single-payer proposals, to date, do not seriously enter into Democrats' plans).  Of course, demonization and incitement are not the only ways to kill discussion on single-payer care.  The most popular way to do this is simply by refusing to mention it as an option - a tactic preferred by mainstream media (see the FAIR study: "Media Blackout on Single-Payer Healthcare").

A responsible reframing of the public debate on health care requires tackling a number of issues:

Socialism, Big Government, and Rationing

Obama's former physician David Scheiner is speaking out publicly in favor of single payer health care (a.k.a. Medicare-for-all).  On the charge of socialism, Scheiner says that a single-payer health care system still relies on "private doctors, private hospitals, private clinics, private companies making the [medical machines], the only thing that's national is the insurance."  At best, then, to claim that the system is socialized is an exaggeration, if not an outright distortion.

On the issue of "rationing" health care, Scheiner explains that under private health care, "every patient I see, the insurance people are in the room watching me telling me what I can do and what I can't.  Medicare [as a single-payer system] has never interfered with me...Medicare doesn't tell us which hospital to go to, doesn't tell us which specialist we can use.  It's extraordinarily rare that it ever denies a procedure.  Private insurance is doing this all the time."  Addressing anxiety over "big government," Scheiner fires back that "we [already] spend $400 billion a year in handling administrative costs of health care that would cover the 50 million who are uncovered" under Medicare-for-all.

While the mass media and town hall crashers play an integral role in demonizing Medicare-for-all, polling firms also play a role in limiting debate.  I've seen little evidence in the polls I read of any questions probing the public on whether they support Medicare-for-all, in contrast to the more limited public option supported by Democrats.  What very little survey data I can find on Medicare-for-all suggests that people do support it, despite the media blackout. Polling from as far back as 2007 shows that 64 percent of Americans support "a national health insurance program for all Americans, even if this requires higher taxes."  A July 2009 poll from the Kaiser group finds that, as of July 2009, 59 percent of Americans support "having a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance through an expanded, universal form of Medicare-for-all." What's truly fascinating is that the Kaiser poll finds that, when the words "single-payer" are added to the same question, support drops by nearly 10 percent.  This is a strong indication that political officials and media are able to manipulate public opinion and demonize a program, not in substance, but through buzz-word phrases.

Mass media, pollsters, Republicans in Congress, and town hall crashers are creating a perfect storm in order to demolish health care reform.  Unfortunately, the use of name calling and slogans is replacing reasoned, open debate on how to move forward.  Of course, it's not too late to promote a respectful dialogue.  The sooner we realize the toxicity of today's mudslinging, the quicker we can promote a real discussion of the problems that burden the American people.

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Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and When Media Goes to War (Feb. 2010).  He can be reached at:

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