Between the Lines Q&A

A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Aug. 14, 2009

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Media Coverage of Health Care Debate
Emphasizes Drama Over Substance


 RealAudio  MP3

Interview with Peter Hart,
activism director with
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting,
conducted by Scott Harris


healtcare

Conservative groups opposed to health care reform being pushed by President Obama and the Democratic- controlled Congress have succeeded in distracting the national media's attention away from a substantive debate on the issues and toward a litany of false and bizarre accusations. Among the irresponsible claims being made by right-wing activists affiliated with corporate-sponsored organizations are that Democratic party-supported health care reform legislation will force the euthanasia of senior citizens, mandate abortions for handicapped fetuses and abolish the nation's private insurance companies. Echoing the rants of conservative radio talk show hosts, some activists compare President Barack Obama with Adolph Hitler and his health care plan to the Holocaust.

While much of the U.S. corporate media is eager to amplify these crude lies, most of the coverage fails to dig deeper to reveal the groups behind the campaign to misinform the public and disrupt congressional Town Hall meetings. Among these groups are Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. Freedom Works' chairman is former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a senior policy advisor with the law firm DLA Piper, which represents major energy corporations and the pharmaceutical industry. FreedomWorks is funded by the right-wing Koch, Scaife, Bradley and Olin foundations.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Peter Hart, activism director with the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting or FAIR. Hart assesses the corporate media's coverage of the U.S. healthcare reform debate and conservative activists' disruption of congressional town hall meetings.

PETER HART: The first thing you probably think when you see it is, you wonder where the media got this sudden interest in listening to, and amplifying grassroots concerns. I've never known this to be very, very typical of the corporate media to care so much about what protesters think. But suddenly they've found protesters here I think that been able to flush out a story line that the media want to tell, and that is that there are passions that are running hot on both sides of this issue.

On the one side, the pro-reform campaign with the White House, with the congressional Democrats; on the other side, these folks who are -- whatever their motivation -- going to these Town Hall meetings, and disrupting them, shouting, comparing the White House efforts to Nazi Germany and so on.

It's really confusing when you try to get a sense of what's going on here. I was just listening to a right-wing talk show host, and one of the callers had just participated in one of these protests. And he was saying, "We were all there, anti-healthcare." And you have to wonder what their beef is, and apparently his was with the idea of health care.

This is, I think, a situation where the media, whatever their motivation is, they are wildly overplaying these folks as a testament to real legitimate public concern. You look at the public opinion on the health care effort, the majority are with the White House and the majority would go much further than the White House and the congressional Democrats are going. That perspective is almost never heard. But what you do hear a lot, are these naysayers who are a minority of the population.

And I think what they've done is they've sown enough mistrust; they've sown enough anger and they've spoken up loudly and clearly enough that people are turned off by this whole issue in general and you're seeing a kind of public fatigue with this issue at all. And that is interpreted in the media as Obama losing control of the message; losing control of the story; reform is on the ropes, blah blah blah.

That's really the main way the media cover this, it's as if we're not talking about the health of all of our citizens, we're talking about a political football that people are throwing back and forth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Have the media gone in any depth to attempt to figure out who these groups are that are organizing these folks, their talking points and what actually is being planned behind the scenes to disrupt these town hall meetings through these groups that have risen above the radar screen? I mean, Americans for Prosperity and a group, FreedomWorks with ties to large corporate interests. Do you want to mention what the media has done or not done in regards to letting the public know who's behind these protests?

PETER HART: I think there's been some reporting at the margins. I think one of the great failures is the failure to simply fact check these things. We can sit here and say, of course, there isn't a forced euthanasia plan in any of these bills; it's obvious, I think it would be nonsensical to think otherwise. And yet, the media doesn't do a very good job of explaining this to the public.

And maybe they feel it's already well known. But you do see that there are people who do believe this, and they're animated enough and angry enough to go to a town hall meeting and yell at their senator or their congressmember. That suggests that this message is not being challenged forcefully enough. That one story in the paper in one day doesn't do the trick. I think one of the problems the media are falling into is this idea that everybody is exaggerating on all sides. So you see these stories; there's one in the New York Times, one in the Washington Post. The Washington Post editorial over the weekend had the same kind of story where they say you've got it on both sides. The Post editorial is remarkable because they had really, four things that they objected to, and three of them were things that the Democrats in Washington were apparently doing that weren't true.

One of the problems with the debate was that Obama was pointing out that the health insurance companies are very profitable and that's an exaggeration to them. You've got one side saying that the health insurance industry makes a lot of money, and the other side says that it's a Nazi plot to kill old people. And the media are in the middle and saying, "Well, both of those are wrong. " Well, that does a tremendous disservice to people. And I think a lot of this could be nipped in the bud if the media stood up and did that job. Going the extra mile and trying to figure out who's behind some of these protests -- I think it would be fantastic for the press to do that, but they haven't done job one yet, which is to inform people about what is and isn't in any of these bills. And I think that's the real failure.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It just seems that we don't ever really get the kind of mainstream coverage of the basic political commerce that goes on in terms of who's getting the money. "Follow the money" is the old adage, and it's certainly true in this case. If we follow the money, we really would know who's pulling the strings in terms of the opposition to health care reform and who's going to lose.

PETER HART: I think that is the adage that every reporter swears by; follow the money. And in this case, there have been a couple of reports. I think the main report on this was in USA Today, if I'm not mistaken. But, it was about where these so-called Blue Dog Democrats were getting money. It was largely from the industry. So you could take it as just a peculiar coincidence that they happen to have these "industry-friendly" ideas and they seem to be the politicians well-positioned to prevent any kind of White House-backed reform. That's either a coincidence or it's a function of where they're getting their money. Now, Washington is certainly a cynical place, and the media is full of cynics in Washington. And you would think they would put these two things together and say, well I think I figured this story out. So, this is, I think the simplest part of the story, and it's the one that evades a lot of scrutiny in the press.

Contact FAIR by calling (212) 633-6700 or visit their website at www.fair.org

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Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines which can be heard on more than 45 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Aug. 21, 2009. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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