Her colleague, Greg Weaver, the Star’s deputy public service editor for business, maintained that the raucous town meetings of August, dominated by conservative activists shouting down Democratic Congressmembers, were newsworthy because they “are more of a public forum where you have many sides of the debate, whereas at the [HCAN] protest [at WellPoint CEO Bray’s house] you have only one side of the debate.”
“I did not think the protest at [Cigna CEO] Hanway’s house was news,” Philadelphia Inquirer business reporter Jane Von Bergen told us. “It was a staged event. It wasn’t real news. I avoid them. I can’t stand them. They don’t add anything. They don’t teach anything. If they go to his house, we don’t learn anything more about the health care debate.” The protest was “too manufactured,” said Von Bergen. “Just a bunch of people going blah-blah-blah.”
By contrast, said Von Bergen, who covered the rowdy town meeting in August where right-wing activists confronted Sen. Arlen Specter, the news value of that event was “readily apparent.” “It involved public figures”—members of Congress. So political reporters picked up the story.
Isn’t Hanway a public figure? we asked. He’s well known in the business community, she said, but not among the general public—a condition that HCAN is trying to change, but can’t do if the media won’t cover their events.
Karl Stark, the Inquirer’s health and science editor, insists that his paper has done a good job of covering the health policy debate. “We do a lot of investigative stuff,” Stark said. “We did a series on the uninsured. We’re written lots of stories about people without insurance, people being under-insured. We’ve written about a guy about to lose a kidney because of the gaps of our health system. We did a story about Wendell Potter [the former CIGNA executive who turned whistleblower and has testified against the company before Congress and spoken at HCAN rallies]. We do a lot of in-depth reporting. We have three reporters covering health care, plus business reporters, on this story.”
Stark did not assign a reporter to cover the protest at Hanway’s house. For one thing, he said, “it crossed a whole bunch of boundaries”—it was a political story, a health care story, and a business story, producing a bureaucratic snafu over which desk is responsible for reporting a demonstration about the issue. But his decision was also based on his judgment about what’s newsworthy. “You’re talking about one group of activists. How big is their movement?”
Several newspersons also blamed the harsh reality of newsroom cutbacks. But the HCAN organizers think that the news media are blacking them out. A TV assignment editor for a local station told Marc Stier, HCAN’s Pennsylvania director, that Hanway’s home in suburban Media was “a bit out of the way,” and noted that TV cameras would be busy that evening to cover fan reaction to the Phillies’ clinching the National League Eastern Division championship. The ritual mattered more than the news of a movement.
As for the question of whether the protests matter, Stier claims that HCAN represents “the biggest issue movement in the state” and that it has influenced Sen. Arlen Specter’s position, adding: “We do two or three events in one day some days, and there’s barely any coverage. There’s no sense of how big this movement is.”
The town-meeting shouters of August, by contrast, were contentious. Some screamed and hectored, some got embroiled in fist fights, some carried guns. Some carried signs calling Obama a “Nazi” and his plan “socialism”; some warned that “Obamacare” would “pull the plug on grandma.” They understood that the standard template for protest stories is the crime story. They cracked the reportorial code: By behaving extravagantly and precipitating clashes, they made news.
It’s an old story, immortalized in the slogan, “If it bleeds, it leads.” This idea of newsworthiness has the unintended effect of coaxing protest movements toward raising the action ante.