Town Hall Tumult

As health reform tensions rise, reporters should keep their cool

August is typically a sleepy month for political news. Not this year. The raging health care debate has followed vacationing Congressmembers home; and as they hold town meetings across the land, they’re getting shouted down by protestors as passions run high.

Some voters have been coached to wreck the meetings using strategies outlined in a memo titled “Rocking the Town Halls – Best Practices,” authored by a member of the conservative group that funded anti-Obama “tea parties” earlier this year.
Meanwhile, supporters of President Obama’s health plan have written their own playbook (PDF) on drowning out the disruptions.

As tensions, tempers, and voices rise in the August heat, it is important for reporters to keep their cool and tell people what is really going on. It’s easy—and entirely valid—to report that people are angry. But it’s much more helpful to evaluate the claims being made in order to determine if that anger is justified.

Today, Lisa Wangsness for The Boston Globe did just that in a decent piece about a raucous town hall meeting in Maryland. After interviewing the “loudest voice in the crowd,” Wangsness then took the time to fact-check the woman’s assertions:

Her reasons for opposing the overhaul? “I’m concerned about taking $2.5 billion out of the private sector and putting it into the government,’’ she said. (The healthcare bill would probably cost around $1 trillion over 10 years, most of it to pay insurers, doctors, and hospitals.) She said she also worried about “the illegalization of private healthcare that is in the bill on page 16.’’ (Every draft of every bill allows people to get private insurance).

“Our representatives are obviously not listening to us,’’ she said. “It has come to a level where the volume has to go up.’’

In another example of how reporters should be evaluating health care claims — on merit and factual accuracy, not on decibel level — the St. Petersburg Times is reviewing statements on health care reform on its “Truth-O-Meter” site, which rates various claims on a scale of “Pants on Fire” to “True.”

The Truth-O-Meter has shut down claims like that of former New York Lt. Gov Betsy McCaughey, who recently said on Fred Thompson’s radio show that end-of-life counseling will be required of Medicare patients under Obama’s plan—needlessly scaring little old ladies across the country. The Truth-O-Meter also dismissed the president’s assertion that “insurance companies are making record profits right now” and upheld another Obama claim that 14,000 lose their health insurance every day as “Mostly True,” while questioning the methods of the study that he quoted.

As we’ve said repeatedly, in contentious political matters like these, it’s important for journalists to report the issues rather than just the debate. Health care reform is complicated, and, as CJR’s Trudy Lieberman has pointed out numerous times, it’s unclear whether the public really understands how the reform plans will affect them. The public needs high-fidelity reporting on health care. When covering the town halls, reporters shouldn’t settle for just adding their voices to the din.

We’ll be looking at how local papers cover the town halls scheduled today and throughout the month.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.