The Media Today: Horse-race coverage and the health-care bill

The new Senate health-care bill, released yesterday by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is getting front-page coverage across the country. That’s a good thing for a document with the potential to reshape one-sixth of the American economy. The process by which the bill was drafted has been shrouded in secrecy, and the speed with which GOP leaders hope to put it to a vote means that Americans need every chance they can to learn about what’s in the legislation.

Earlier this week, CJR’s Trudy Lieberman spoke with several veteran health-care reporters about the differences in covering this year’s attempt at reform as compared to past efforts. Along with issues surrounding secrecy and speed, Vox’s ace health-care reporter Sarah Kliff told Lieberman that one of the differences is that, “in 2009 the goals were very clear—cover more people and reduce costs. When you talk to Republicans and ask what’s the point of their bill, they say, ‘We need a bill that can get 51 votes.’”

That attitude seems to be reflected in much of the press coverage. Whether Republican leadership can muster the votes necessary to pass the bill is ultimately, of course, central to whether Americans will see their health care change. But a perusal of stories dominating front pages in print and on the Web shows a focus on vote counting that calls to mind critiques of election coverage dominated by horse-race politics rather than policy issues.

To be sure, every article I’ve read addresses actual changes to policy that Republicans hope to make, but the dominant theme of many stories is whether senators who are on the fence will be convinced by one added provision or another. Health-care legislation is notoriously difficult to cover, and many readers undoubtedly lack a nuanced understanding of the issues being debated. All the same, the best reporting is the type that focuses on what’s changing in the bill, and what effect those changes will have on Americans’ lives.

Below, more on the new Senate health-care push.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.