What was the public to make yesterday of the health care repartee between Governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Mel Martinez of Florida on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos? Probably not much. The discussion was he said/she said journalism at its very best—unfortunately on a complex issue that needs some neutral journalist to serve up the context and perhaps the truth. But it was almost as if Stephanopoulos deliberately set up his guests to go at each other, with charges and counter-charges flying hither and yon. If Stephanopoulos wanted a shouting match a la The McLaughlin Group, he got it. What the public got was another story.

Stephanopoulos showed a campaign clip in which Barack Obama attacked the central premise of John McCain’s health plan—taxing the value of employer-provided health insurance and giving everyone a tax credit to buy their own insurance, as an inducement to jump out of their employers’ health plan. Said Obama: “He gives you a tax credit with one hand and raises your taxes with the other.”

Martinez landed the first punch, proclaiming that Obama’s “plan is to turn over the health system to the government,” a gross error that Stephanopoulos invited Rendell to counter. He did, and then added his own misleading statement to the mix: that Obama’s cost-cutting ideas will reduce premiums. Too bad Stephanopoulos didn’t interject that health experts believe Obama’s cost-cutting proposals won’t do much to reduce costs and, therefore, premiums that reflect those costs.

Things got testy when Rendell said McCain’s $5000 tax credit for families would not buy much coverage in his state: “For a family of four in Pennsylvania you can’t buy health care worth a damn for $5000 a year; it’s got to be at least $12,000 and that’s for a stripped down plan. It’s a farce.” Enter Martinez, who insisted that, in his state, a family could buy a policy for $5000, which prompted Rendell to ask him to name one company that sold one. “The people out there know that’s complete bull,” Rendell went on to say. Another missed opportunity for Stephanopoulos. He might have informed his viewers that the Kaiser Family Foundation’s latest survey found that the average premium for a family is now $12,680, five percent higher than last year and 119 percent higher than in 1999. Or Stephanopoulos could have pointed out that while families might be able to buy a cheap policy, it often comes with a sky-high deductible—sometimes in the neighborhood of $10,000 or more—and might not cover important services like maternity care.

Stephanopoulos really blew it when he failed to show that all this who-ha is meaningless anyway to someone with a pre-existing health condition. For too many people, a million dollar credit couldn’t even buy them a policy. Whether these people get can get coverage is the test of true reform, no matter who is president.

As the health segment wound down, Stephanopoulos urged Gov. Pawlenty to “get in here.” Pawlenty did, offering an utterly confusing discussion of the differences between tax credits and tax deductions as they applied to health insurance. Then he added a new dimension to the discussion—one we haven’t heard much about so far.

Obama would require employers to either provide insurance for their workers or pay into a fund that helps people with low incomes buy their own coverage—the so-called pay or play scheme that doomed the Clinton plan over a decade ago. Pawlenty argued that pay or play burdens employers, leaving the impression this strategy was not such a good idea; Stephanopoulos provided no context about various options for financing reform. Then Pawlenty mentioned “third party groups” that, apparently, have done studies showing that McCain’s plan buys more coverage than Obama’s. What third party groups? Neutral ones or those with an ideological bent? Stephanopoulos didn’t ask.

So what did the public learn? The Republicans said Obama was turning over health care to the government. The Democrats said he wasn’t. The Republicans said families could get insurance for $5000. The Democrats said they couldn’t, and each side missed a major point—no one can get coverage if they’re already sick. Republicans said that some unnamed third parties found that McCain’s plan had more purchasing power. The Democrats said McCain’s $5000 credit will not get you coverage. Stephanopoulos moved on.

We know health care is tough to understand sometimes, but that’s no excuse for Stephanopoulos—the moderator of a show watched by millions—to take a pass on doing his homework, in effect turning a health care discussion into a form of theater, or banal journalism. Take your pick.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and 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. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.