Huh? This tangle of competing claims, without any attempt by the reporter to help the reader understand who is more and less right, is not only useless to someone trying to decide how to think about these issues, but also utterly dispiriting.
Traditional journalism craves controversy—even if it’s manufactured or beside the point—and the health-reform story produced a doozy: the public plan. For months press coverage focused on the politics of a public plan—who wanted it, who was against it, its chances for passage. Meanwhile, with a wink to the special interests who supported him financially during the campaign, President Obama didn’t fight for a public plan, and let the insurers, doctors, hospitals, and the business community (with a crucial assist from Joe Lieberman) kill it in the Senate. Even so-called supporters of the public plan, who made a lot of noise, knew it was essentially a bargaining chip. It was a charade the press should have exposed more forcefully and then dug into the true controversy: whether the health-reform law in Massachusetts, the model for the national bill, was working as well as the state’s officials and other cheerleaders maintained. When MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, the über-cheerleader for national reform, said on PBS’s NewsHour last fall that Massachusetts residents who must buy their own health coverage were getting lower premiums as a result of the state’s reform, he didn’t mention (and host Gwen Ifill didn’t ask) that those lower premiums were made possible because employees of small businesses were paying much higher premiums. Small business owners are now getting hit with increases of 20 to 45 percent or more. Indeed, red flags in Massachusetts did not fit the “its time has come” narrative the press and the newsmakers had embraced—though when Republican Scott Brown stunned Democrats by winning Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in January, it became clear that the press should have paid more attention to those warnings.
Traditional journalism tends to be reactive, and the ill-effects of this were never more evident than with the “death-panel” debacle. Instead of bringing audiences around to a serious discussion of end-of-life care, the press let right-wing ideologues set the agenda with misinformation before eventually doing the stories that refuted the outrageous claims of Sarah Palin and others. But it was too little, too late. More than a month after the notion surfaced, I interviewed a volunteer at a sandwich booth at a Labor Day Italian festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who told me he was very worried about what he called the end-of-life committee. “I have heard all the arguments,” he said, “and nobody has convinced me it doesn’t exist.”
I’ve been a “traditional” journalist for more than forty years. I understand the circumstances and logic that gave rise to these journalism strategies, even as I am frustrated by how they hinder coverage. But more than two years ago, when I began writing about the coverage of the health-care debate for CJR’s Web site, I tried to use the freedom from the strictures of traditional journalism that writing online afforded to experiment with my own coverage—to try to produce the kind of coverage that I was asking the mainstream press to deliver. For instance, a tenet of traditional journalism is that we write for the average citizen, but so many of the health-care stories I was reading seemed aimed more at Washington insiders or the reporter’s colleagues and competitors. I reached into my past to find a way to do it better. I’ve long thought that Consumer Reports, where I used to work, produced some of the clearest, most useful explanatory journalism around. Once I asked then-Editor Irwin Landau who his audience was, and he said he always had in mind school teachers, people who had some money but not a lot, and who needed to understand not only what to buy and why but the economic and medical forces that shaped those decisions.
With such readers in mind, I tried to give them a thorough analysis of the issue at hand, but one that was grounded in deep reporting, not lightly informed opinion. Here the late Johnny Apple was my inspiration. His analyses for The New York Times invariably helped me understand issues I knew little about. It wasn’t simply that Apple was a talented writer, or a big enough star that he could get away with pushing opinions in the news columns; Apple was first and foremost a fine reporter, and his analyses reflected the authority and knowledge earned through that reporting.
But both Apple’s analyses and Consumer Reports stories tended to come in traditional, long-form doses. The trick for today’s audiences in my opinion is to take Apple’s trademark reporting and analysis and apply them to a series of shorter, pithier stories. Short shouldn’t have to mean shallow.