Over the weekend, Politico published one of those juicy, inside-the-industry stories that media execs love to read. The story trashed health care reform as boring television and noted that MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan called health care “bad for ratings.” As proof of Ratigan’s assertion, Politico cited the comparatively low turnout for the president’s health care news conference last week—24.5 million viewers, the smallest prime time audience of the Obama presidency. And, said Politico, Fox was right for not airing the president’s words—its episode of So You Think You Can Dance won first place in the eight p.m. time slot.
Politico consulted Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, who said that indeed health care was “bad for ratings, but not talking about it is bad for the American people.” OK, we agree. Then John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, weighed in: “It’s not only not a cable TV-friendly story; it’s not a journalism-friendly story.” Harwood, who also writes for The New York Times, opined that reporters need to understand the intricacies and nuances of health policy before they inform their audiences. Well, yes. We’ve been offering suggestions of how to do that for nearly two years now.
NPR’s Julie Rovner added her two cents, saying that health care is “so big and so complicated that the public is never really going to understand all the moving parts of this.” That makes them vulnerable to the fear-mongering ads bought and paid for by special interest demagogues of all stripes, she explained. Jon Banner, Charlie Gibson’s executive producer over at ABC News, believes “there are too many bills with too many details, which are all different…. That’s confusing to people.”
So should we stop explaining to the public how they will be affected by whatever comes forth from Congress because, as Rovner suggests, they will never understand it anyway? Should we forget about the details, as Banner implies? For months, we at Campaign Desk have criticized the president and members of Congress for being too vague, and have urged them to explain—in detailed terms—how reform will affect their constituents. Failing to do so leaves the public susceptible to special interest propaganda. What exactly does a “public option” or “bundled payments” mean to an auto mechanic on Main Street?
We’re sorry Politico didn’t talk to us about good health care reporting. We would have pointed its reporter to KQED in San Francisco, which through its Health Dialogue series has done an excellent job all year of covering health topics, ranging from the use of emergency rooms by drug addicts to myths and misinformation about the Canadian health care system. On this one, details do matter, and health reporter Sarah Varney separated the facts from the fiction currently being spread by TV ads purchased by conservative interests who oppose single-payer systems.
Varney traveled to Vancouver to learn what health care is actually like in Canada. Contrary to popular belief, she found health care works pretty well. In a note to me, Varney said:
I would say as an American health reporter there is a lot of pressure inside news rooms to give the Canadian horror stories equal footing with what my reporting actually found—-which was that the Canadian system is by-and-large a functioning system that covers everyone for half the cost with enviable health outcomes.
Varney told a compelling and interesting story that directly contradicts the ads now running on U.S. television. She also conducted a roundtable conversation with some of the best Canadian health experts, including leading health economists Robert Evans and Morris Barer. They explained that their system is not socialized medicine—doctors don’t work for the state; they are independent and run their own practices. What is socialized is the insurance pool—every Canadian is in it—which powers the country’s lower cost, not-for-profit health insurance system.
As for the long waits Canadians supposedly endure, the number of people who do that is “vanishingly small.” The illusion has been created, said Evans, that there are lines of people near death wanting services in Canada. He called that “absolute nonsense.” The government has recently taken steps to alleviate whatever waits existed, by establishing national benchmarks and allocating more money for certain types of care.
Varney’s piece addressed the notion of rationing, often used as a scare tactic by right-wing groups. In Canada, the experts told KQED listeners, care is rationed according to need; in the U.S., it’s rationed by the ability to get insurance and pay the bills.
Granted, KQED is a public radio station, but we don’t see why some of the stories it has tackled can’t be replicated by enterprising TV producers and reporters—that is, if they are seriously interested in transcending health care’s image as a ratings buster. The story Varney did for radio I did in print for Consumer Reports in 1992. I, too, went to Vancouver to investigate the claims conservative interests were making, and, like Varney, I found them untruthful. I interviewed some of the same people she did—Evans and Barer—who told me the same things they told Varney. That was one of the best and most enlightening reporting experiences of my career. If we can do a story that worked well in print for its time and now works well in radio and on the Web, why can’t it be done on TV?Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.