Last week, The New Republic turned over its health care blog “The Treatment” to an odd commenter on media coverage—University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack, who runs the university’s Center for Health Administration Studies. I thought I knew most of those who dabble in these waters, but Pollack’s name took me by surprise. Pollack, a special correspondent for The Treatment, may know something about welfare programs and substance abuse, but we on Campaign Desk take issue with his credentials as a press critic and dispute his central point. In his piece, Pollack argued:
Because it is so easy to find bad reporting and public stupidity, it is easy to overlook something. Press coverage of health care reform was the most careful, most thorough, and most effective reporting of any major story, ever.
Better coverage than the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement; the consumer movement? Really? In the case of the civil rights struggle, the press helped change the discourse; Americans began to view race in a new way, which led to the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act. During the Vietnam War, the media effectively changed the public dialogue from a war we couldn’t lose to one we could not win. In the early days of the consumer movement, media coverage of Ralph Nader led Congress to enact significant consumer protections. Coverage of health reform has hardly risen to that level.
In fact, poll after poll has shown that about as many people approved of the reform legislation as opposed it, and suggested that most Americans lacked a basic understanding of the changes being proposed. How many people opposed the bill because they didn’t understand it? As the bill teetered on the verge of passage, politicians acknowledged this sad fact when they told the press that the public will come to like it when they learn what’s in it.
Calling the public stupid slips into blame-the-victim mode and smacks of elitism. It’s Peoria Joe’s own damn fault for not devouring the policy wonk materials Pollack argues exist by the boatloads. Everyone reads JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine, right? Maybe that kind of talk is okay for ivory tower academics at the University of Chicago, but it isn’t for journalists—especially those in the MSM upon whom the public counts to not only deliver the news but to interpret what it means. Here is where the press fell down, a point we have made repeatedly on Campaign Desk and in the March issue of the print magazine.
The press failed to tell the public—people like Jeremy Devor, who lives a few hundred miles south of Pollack’s office, how the legislation would affect his family. You see, Devor has good insurance from his employer. Yet he was struggling to pay the out-of-pocket medical costs that were not covered. He had heard the president and the press say he could keep the coverage he had, but he knew it wasn’t working for him. When I met up with him, he wanted to know how he would be helped.
In numerous impromptu “town hall” interviews I conducted around the country, I found many people keenly interested in the health care debate. But they knew on some level that the media wasn’t helping them out. I would hardly call any of them stupid. Many had simply been misinformed, like an Army reservist working at Starbucks who had heard Obama planned to take away her health insurance. Others had heard so many conflicting stories about health care, like the man in Columbia, Missouri who told me health reform is “just kind of fuzzy to everybody.”
Still more had been led to believe that reform would solve all their medical problems, only to be disappointed to learn the truth. In Columbia, a fifty-seven year-old woman on Social Security disability, waiting to qualify for Medicare, said that early on she had heard politicians say that they would reduce the amount of time that she had to wait before she could get Medicare benefits. The waiting period was and still is two years. When I met her, she didn’t know that reducing the waiting period was off the table. The fix was too expensive for Congress to seriously consider; they needed the money to pay the doctors who were lobbying (and still are) to make sure that fee cuts mandated by Congress don’t take effect.