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Watch the Democrats, Part II

The Hill’s skeptical story still stands
May 27, 2008

A story in The Hill a few weeks ago, which we reported on, offered some grim comments from members of the Senate about prospects for health reform that have reverberated. Among others, they reverberated with Ezra Klein at The American Prospect, who commented on the senators’ comments and later that day ran two follow-up clarifications from Senator Jay Rockefeller and Senator Max Baucus. Rockefeller had originally said: “We all know there is not enough money to do all this stuff. What they are doing is…laying out their ambitions.” Baucus had told The Hill that the groundwork for reform was being laid through hearings, but he projected an uphill battle ahead. “If they try to solve all the problems, it’s going to be difficult.”

Klein called their offices and gave space for clarification on his blog and, in the spirit of blogosphere conversation, that’s what he should do. Rockefeller’s press secretary said: “It’s not that we shouldn’t do health care, but we need to be realistic that we’re broke.” He added that the senator’s position is to take priorities (presumably health care) off the budget–which requires that if programs are added, others must be cut to pay for them–and find other ways to finance the new stuff. That’s the story reporters should follow. Will Rockefeller take the lead and find the money, or is his statement just more empty words?

Baucus’s aide, meanwhile, told Klein that the senator was going to lay the groundwork to start a major discussion on reform in 2009, holding hearings and hosting a great deal of discussion so members of the finance committee and congress “more generally can dig into both the problems and the possible solutions.” We still think reporters should be wary, and what Baucus’s aide said still sounds like a lot of high-sounding words.

Klein’s interpretation of Baucus’s statement was more generous. He told his readers that the senator, who happens to chair the key Senate Finance Committee, is going to spend a lot of time on hearings, coalition building, and public events that signal his committee’s readiness to take up health care reform. “It’s not the sort of thing you do if you don’t believe it will happen,” Klein said. The more skeptical among us might point out that it is also precisely what you do if you have no intention of moving ahead with legislation. On the Hill, they don’t call such activities “paralysis by analysis” or dog-and-pony shows for nothing. Years ago when I was a cub reporter at the Detroit Free Press, Michigan Senator Philip Hart, who was known as the conscience of the Senate, came by one Sunday afternoon. We talked about consumer protection laws, and he told me he was holding hearings on a fish inspection bill that I was interested in. Then the bill is going to pass, I naively asked the senator. No, said Hart, those hearings are just dog-and-pony shows to make the public think we are doing something. That’s a lesson I never forgot, and it is relevant for any journalist who will cover the nitty-gritty of health reform legislation next year.

Out in Montana, the home turf of Senator Baucus, Mike Dennison, a reporter in the state bureau for Lee Newspapers, seems to understand what Hart meant. Dennison wrote a piece that X-rayed the same fuzzy quotes and signals that The Hill reporter got. Right at the beginning Dennison told readers that Baucus says he is making health reform a top priority this year and next but hasn’t spelled out many details. Instead, Dennis reported, he has laid out five principles he wants to pursue. Ah, principles! That’s another way of dodging the substance when you don’t want to commit. Dennison quoted Bob Moffit, director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Moffit said what the boundaries of journalism would not let Dennison say. “None of these things are spelled out. The language doesn’t tell me anything about what the policy actually is. It’s a good sound bite, but it doesn’t say anything.”

So we repeat: when it comes to health care, reporters must keep one eye on the Democrats.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.