This is part six of a series on the start of the 2008 presidential election’s general campaign. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of the article.


Of the hundreds of stories I’ve looked at over the past six months, the blog post written by Megan Carpentier for Glamour stands out. Carpentier is a young woman who has seen the warts of the health care system both as a patient and as a worker, covered and uncovered by her various employers’ insurance policies. She examined how she would fare under the plans offered by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain; she examined their plans, in other words, from the perspective of an ordinary American for whom the battle over health reform is ostensibly being waged.

Carpentier’s thorough analysis concluded that McCain’s plan “would do nothing for me,” and that the others might help her in the short run. She especially liked that both Clinton and Obama would force insurers to cover and renew policies for people with pre-existing conditions (including people who were born with a birth defect, as she was). Carpentier zoomed in on a major rallying cry for reform—bringing sick people under the insurance tent. Her post represents a genre of health reporting that has been missing so far, one that helps citizens answer the question: Will I be better off or worse off under this candidate’s plan?

Good explanatory journalism should reign supreme on health care, but by and large it hasn’t. What has passed for explanation and context has often dissolved into the all-too familiar “he said/she said” accounts that aren’t a lot of help. Often they have focused on Clinton’s mandate and Obama’s no mandate, without bringing much clarity to the subject, or on how many people would be covered under Clinton’s more universal plan or Obama’s less universal one, as if the word “universal” could be modified by the adjectives more and less. Some of the reporting by New York Times reporter Kevin Sack can be singled out for informing with clarity and precision. His stories on the financial struggles in Massachusetts to cover all the state’s residents and the troubles in other states trying to cover more people should give fair warning to any politician who says the states will serve as a model for national reform. Other reporters might look to Sack’s stories as a model.

The word that describes too much of the campaign’s health care coverage is: timid. When candidates’ have said things that are just plain wrong—like the Romney-Guiliani-McCain assertions that Democrats are proposing the dreaded socialized medicine—most of the press let the erroneous descriptions stand, at least until recently, when some outlets have pushed back against such spin. Nor have they challenged Obama on his continued claim that he has accepted no money from lobbyists. Just before the Oregon primary, the Salem News reported, Obama laid out his approach for fixing health care and “will stand up to the big drug and insurance companies and refuse all donations from Washington lobbyists and special-interest PACs, in order to make universal health care a reality for every single American.” As CJR has noted, Obama may not take donations from PACs, which aren’t important in presidential races anyway, or from those who are officially registered as Washington lobbyists, but he does indeed take big money from groups that lobby, including drug and insurance interests.

Meanwhile, there has been virtually no coverage of groups, including a majority of doctors, that support a single-payer option. It’s as if the policy establishment and the media have decreed such a plan has no chance so why bring it up. Why should we let the candidates limit the parameters of the discussion?

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.