Lazy Summer Musings from the WSJ D.C. Bureau

The Wall Street Journal wants you to know why the town halls were so rowdy this summer. Here’s its stilted lede:

WASHINGTON — Recent town-hall uproars weren’t just about health care. They were also eruptions of concern that the government is taking on too much at once.

The point of the story: Anger over health-care reform has deeper roots. No kidding. But rather than fully explore the matter, the Journal is content to tick off a list of maybe-kinda-plausible-sounding things that make these “roots” resentment of government action rather than something with many more facets.

August, typically a sleepy month, dealt Democrats a tough hand this year.

Snafus in the federal “cash for clunkers” program — which gave people rebates to trade in gas-guzzling cars for more fuel-efficient new vehicles — highlighted how disorganization can hamper government plans. It was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops so far in the war in Afghanistan. Attorney General Eric Holder poked a potential hornets’ nest by appointing a prosecutor to investigate Central Intelligence Agency interrogators. And White House budget forecasters said they now project $9 trillion of additional federal debt over the next decade, adding $2 trillion to an earlier estimate.

Of all these, only the last seems somewhat legitimate as a cause of town-hall anger, and that’s only if you ignore the fact that Obama is responsible for almost none of the debt. The Journal does indeed ignore that fact, like the Washington Post before it and, surely, many of the town-hall hollerers.

As for cash for clunkers, is that program most closely associated with “snafus and disorganization,” or just being more popular than expected? As to the implication that the government can’t do anything right, what about the snafus and disorganization by businessmen who ran a non-government car industry so poorly that the feds had to take it over—so an entire region wouldn’t revert to the Stone Age?

And Afghanistan: After being started and run so disastrously for seven-plus years by George W. Bush, it’s now a “Democrat war”—to use Bob Dole’s catchy phrase—after seven months? Even so, some evidence that the war had something to do with town-hall anger is in order.

Same goes for the claim that Holder’s investigation of what are clearly crimes is stirring up a hornets’ nest. Is that on Main Street or on Pennsylvania Avenue?

But the glaring weakness of the story is that it ignores the elephant in the room—that there’s been a load of disinformation floating around out there. We have unprincipled politicians spreading ghost stories about “death panels,” not to mention the Howard Beales on Journal sister network Fox News (now just down the elevator!) stoking apocalyptic paranoia. Then there’s the wackjob birther movement that has 38 percent of the country unsure of whether the president is even legitimately elected. These have deeper roots all right—all the way into the American id.

And they’re significant accelerants on the big-government fire (which—don’t get me wrong—is a real one). Are folks bringing guns to presidential appearances because they don’t like the “public option”? I don’t think so.

In placing the blame almost completely on anti-big-government sentiment, the Journal relies on canned quotes from town hall meetings, including one from John McCain, and not much else.

The only actual citizen quoted in the story wasn’t even in much of an uproar. He just wants to know how it’s going to flow, man.

“We’ve got a pretty good chunk out there already in the stimulus. We just came back with the cash for clunkers,” said Mr. Phillips, a retired superintendent of schools. “I guess I’m concerned — how do we make all of this flow?”

The Journal couldn’t find a more, um, uproarious instance of uproar?

If they had called us, we would have told them our pet theory: that years of post-modern alienation and a decline in religious belief have combined to shake the masses out of their existential ennui and into a state of faux mobilization.

Seriously, the point is, if you want to pin the televised uproars on “concern that the government is taking on too much at once,” go get some evidence—and don’t ignore the kind that muddles your thesis.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.