Healthcare Reform Minus the Public Option--or the Public

Waving the white flag and kicking the left

It was probably a given that the corporate press would mangle the debate over this year's healthcare reform legislation, considering their poor showing in the healthcare debate of the early '90s (Extra!, 7-8/93). The only questions were when and how. One answer came immediately, as the media shut off discussion of a popular single-payer plan before it even started (Extra!, 6/09). But in the debate the media did allow, the answer came in late summer, when "town hall" protests and the media's fetish for bipartisanship pushed the discourse well to the right.

In some ways the media's malpractice was typical. A July survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (News Coverage Index, 7/20-26/09) found that most of the coverage they studied that week focused on political strategy and Beltway maneuvering rather than the actual content of the various proposals. A Politico report (7/27/09) tried to get reporters to explain why the healthcare issue seemed to bore them. One MSNBC host claimed that it's "bad for ratings." CNBC correspondent and New York Times reporter John Harwood elaborated: "It's not only not a cable TV-friendly story; it's not a journalism-friendly story." Harwood lamented the difficulties in understanding cost controls and the like.

NPR health policy reporter Julie Rovner concurred, telling Politico that "the problem with healthcare is that it's so big and so complicated that the public is never really going to understand all the moving parts of this."

So instead of trying to inform the public, the media seem to have settled on simply teaching a straightforward and familiar political lesson to Democratic politicians (many of whom don't need the extra push): Move to the right. That largely meant encouraging the White House to drop its support for the "public option"-a government-backed insurance plan that would offer coverage to some segment of the population that does not enjoy private coverage-and applauding when President Barack Obama appeared to be doing just that.

In order to make that case, media have had to frame the public option as a serious liability for the White House, rather than a popular core of its overhaul.

An August 18 Los Angeles Times piece led off: "By dropping his insistence on a public insurance option, President Obama angered some of his most loyal supporters but sharply improved the odds of passing a far-reaching healthcare overhaul." It was curious, then, to find this simple statement several paragraphs into the article: "Polls have shown that a large majority of Americans favor a public option." Coherent journalism might try to explain how something that is popularly supported is nonetheless politically impossible, and why removing one of the more popular features of a bill "improves the odds" of passing that bill.

An August 17 Washington Post story led this way: "Racing to regain control of the healthcare debate, two top administration officials signaled Sunday that the White House may be willing to jettison a controversial government-run insurance plan favored by liberals." Here "regaining control" is a strange euphemism for backtracking; the public option is "controversial," and its appeal is apparently restricted mainly to liberals.

On the roundtable segment of ABC's This Week (8/9/09), host George Stephanopoulos wondered if Obama would accept a watered-down bill in order to break with the "Howard Dean wing of the party." This notion was seconded by panelist Cokie Roberts, with right-wing columnist Peggy Noonan chiming in to say, "Maybe it would be good for the president if the left got absolutely furious about something." The old Beltway advice remains unchanged: For a Democrat to "win," he or she must kick the left of the party.

The Washington Post editorial page weighed in on August 20, under the heading: "No Longer an Option: To Pass Health Reform, the Obama Administration Will Have to Ditch Its Goal of a Public Plan." In case that message wasn't clear enough on its own, the Post went on to deride as "crazy" those Democrats who believe reform without a public option would hardly be worth it. Indeed, the obstructionists in the debate seemed to be those on the left advocating for something along the lines of the public option. (This would be the most left-wing position permissible in much of the media once single-payer advocates were effectively shut out-FAIR Media Advisory, 3/6/09.)

As Crooks and Liars reported on August 19, that morning MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell asked NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, "How did this become the thing that liberals will not live without?" Todd answered that he thought "it became a big deal from the left because originally it was the immediate point of attack from some conservatives....You sort of wonder was it simply a political reaction from the left: 'They don't like it, we love it.'"

In the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus (8/23/09) saw virtue in Obama's muddled stance, since it would make capitulation that much easier:

Obama has left himself plenty of room to downsize his plan. Too many voters think end-of-life counseling sounds like a "death panel"? Out it goes. Too many senators think a government-run "public option" insurance plan would crowd private firms out of the market? Tell them you can live with something less, like regional cooperatives-even as you tell your dispirited progressive supporters that you'd still prefer the public option.

So if the conventional wisdom is that the White House should move away from the "left," that must mean that the solution lies-as it so often does for the corporate media-in the "middle." CNBC's Erin Burnett declared on NBC's Meet the Press (8/9/09), "Americans don't want healthcare that isn't bipartisan."

The August 6 Washington Post offered a helpful lesson on the media's notion of centrism, with the headline: "Senators Closer to Health Package: Bipartisan Talks on Reform Move Toward Center." The "talks" refer to those held by the working group of the Senate Finance Committee, which produced a plan that "seeks middle ground" and could provide media-friendly "bipartisan agreement." One of the principle features of this "centrist" plan would be scuttling the public option; apparently it is "centrist" and "middle ground" to discard popular policy proposals.

As the debate heated up, with angry right-wing protesters shouting down politicians, threatening violence and comparing Obama to Adolph Hitler, the Post editorial page (8/9/09) seemed to find the threat to that sacred middle ground more on the left than on the right. As the Post's subhead put it (perhaps too kindly), "Rhetoric and distortion imperil the opportunity to fix the American healthcare system."

"Republican lawmakers and conservative activists have fanned the flames of uninformed opposition," the paper explained, but the next three paragraphs were directed at the White House and Democrats for "vilifying the health-insurance industry," overstating the profit margins of the insurance industry (they're extremely profitable, argued the Post, but not making "record profits," as Obama had claimed), and promising too much to everyone. In other words, judged by the amount of time spent assigning blame, the Post believes that Democrats and the White House are roughly three times as guilty as their Republican and conservative counterparts. Apparently, at the Washington Post, comparing someone to a Nazi is less offensive than saying health insurers make too much money.

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