Harold Pollack went out on a limb, and unfortunately fell off the edge, when he suggested that healthcare reform was the “best-covered news story, ever.” Not even Pollack himself seems to really believe that premise as he peppers caveats throughout the article, and ultimately cites a few genuine examples of good journalism that occurred during healthcare reform. Ultimately, however, Pollack only manages to convince that citizens may have been able to hunt down some good nuggets of genuine journalism…if they knew where to look…which most citizens didn’t.
Right out the gate, Pollack attempts to amend his thesis.
It’s certainly easy to find examples of shoddy journalism and public ignorance to bolster this charge. Every night, one could watch cable TV screamers trafficking in untruths about death panels, or commentators offering with certitude political predictions that (a) were generally wrong and (b) generally detracted from discussing the actual substance of a hugely important piece of legislation.
Pollack cites the Wall Street Journal (circulation 2 million), Fox News (the highest rated basic cable channel in primetime), and Investor’s Business Daily (circulation 210,000) as a few examples of the “bad journalism” which peddled the worst kinds of healthcare miseducation nonsense. He’s absolutely correct that these forums engaged in shoddy journalism, but their low-quality gutter-dredging techniques successfully brainwashed millions of readers and viewers. That’s a big “FAIL” for the state of journalism right there. The worst journalmalism reached the most people.
The reason Pollack believes healthcare is “the best-covered news story, ever” is because a select group could seek out very accurate information if they had the right tools to do so. Even Pollack acknowledges that only a small part of the population could do this (“I concede that one needed to know where to find this information”). This hypothetical person would first need to be aware that the mainstream media was lying to them. Then, they would need access to the internet (and specifically probably broadband internet). Then, they would need to know where to look for accurate information that delves deeper than 99.9% of the healthcare coverage, which obsessed with the horse race aspects of reform (who’s up, who’s down, who’s mad at Nancy Pelosi this week, blah, blah, blah…)
Yes, it’s very cool that people could read the healthcare bill online, but how many Americans actually did that? We’ll probably never know, but it seems likely that far more people tuned in for Fox “death panel” propaganda than sat down to read the healthcare bill. For people who work two jobs and/or have five kids, it’s just easier to turn on the teevee.
Pollack gives props to the major news outlets (NYT, Wapost, Newsweek, Atlantic, Time) for making the best of a bad situation with their dire budgets cuts and dwindling staffs. But here again he fails to acknowledge that quantity of coverage does not inherently mean quality of coverage.
I absolutely concur all over the place when it comes to the few gems (“good journalism”) Pollack lists. Kaiser Family Foundation, New England Journal, FDL, Digby, and other bloggers were great throughout the reform process. They provided important, insightful coverage and analyses, but bloggers have to acknowledge that they are still a fraction of a fraction of the populace. Misinformation and shoddy coverage still dominate the mainstream media. Unfortunately, these great moments of true muckraking journalism were few and far between. Though Pollack’s VIP list worked diligently for many months, their readership is minuscule when compared to the audience of hate radio and the major networks.
When I asked Trudy Lieberman, a veteran journalist, who has reported on health care and consumer issues for over thirty years, to grade the media’s performance in explaining healthcare reform to the American people, she said, “probably C-, but I tend to be a very tough grader.”
For Lieberman, who blogs over at Columbia Journalism Review, substance is key. It’s not enough to constantly chatter about healthcare if citizens still don’t understand what “health insurance exchanges” and “age-rating” mean.
Here’s one quick example of the quantity VS. quality conflict. The media covered Obama’s healthcare summit ad nauseum. Does that mean the media was offering quality coverage? Maybe not. Certainly, the drama of the event was highlighted in a kind of apocalyptic showdown between Republicans and Democrats. Would Obama be tough? Would Republicans concede anything? Yet, it didn’t seem like citizens learned anything from this circus.
Lieberman does this neat thing where she steps away from the computer and goes to interview humans (she calls them CJR Town Hall Meetings). She wanted to see if average citizens understood the issues being discussed at the summit so she interviewed random New Yorkers in Chelsea just to get a feel for the effects of the media’s narrative.
A few people I interviewed didn’t know about the big health care pow-wow on Thursday, even though that topic has consumed stakeholders, interest groups, Internet listservs, and health care reporters for weeks.
“I am not aware of the summit,” said thirty-eight-year-old Liza, who was having her nails done. But then, she had not been very engaged with the debate in the first place. “Personally I don’t think I will be affected by it,” she said. Liza has insurance from her employer, but she declined to say where she works. “There’s nothing I’ve heard that makes me think I would be.” Hmmm, I thought. Apparently the messages from the president and the pols these many months had not filtered down to her.
Here is Lieberman interviewing Phil McQuade, an insured office technician for Verizon.
At first McQuade said he didn’t know how reform might affect him. Then he told me he thinks he might have to pay more. “We’re giving insurance to the wrong people,” he said. Which ones? I asked. “Like illegal aliens,” he replied. I explained that they would not be covered under the bills. “I don’t know that,” he said, adding that things are changing fast. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they put it back in.”
Now, it may be McQuade’s fault that he refuses to accept the facts, but a Pew Research Center poll from March shows that the public is very critical of the media’s healthcare coverage.
Three-quarters (75%) say that news organizations have done only a fair or a poor job explaining the details of the proposals, and nearly as many (71%) give negative ratings to the press for explaining the effects that health care proposals would likely have on “people like yourself.”
That may explain why people like McQuade don’t understand what the bill covers let alone how it will change their lives.
Interestingly, what Lieberman heard over and over is that Obama has disappointed his constituents, who think he conceded too much to the Republicans. Of course, it’s hard to a get a feel for that kind of popular discontent when the media constantly harps on America being a center-right country, and the president should be a measured pragmatist, who was elected to be The Bipartisan One.
To be sure, there were positive media moments during healthcare reform, and Pollack is right to highlight those examples. Good journalism should be rewarded and encouraged, but let’s not pat the media collectively on the back for an overall shoddy performance. “Most-covered” and “best-covered” are not synonymous.
Update April 6: Pollack responds to my post here.
There’s a blind spot here that I think limits the debate. Pollack points out that “Sixty percent of U.S. households have high-speed internet,” but that does not make internet users healthcare wonks. As he points out, for all we know, they could be looking at naked pictures of Angelina Jolie. There’s just no data on what they’re really looking at.
That’s why I limited myself to polls about citizens’ reaction to the media’s healthcare coverage performance. That we can measure, and the numbers aren’t good.
Pollack and I share a concern over the extinction of print journalism. While I know many individuals who are celebrating the decline of traditional media (they tend to remember only the Judith Miller debacle), I see this as a very dangerous time for America. There are thousands of great journalists/watchdogs who are soon going to be out of work. Hopefully, the internet can quickly restructure into an online version of newspapers — and this is important – pay its reporters a living wage. Huffington Post is a neat enterprise, but it exists on free labor.
One last note: Pollack writes that I underestimate “the indirect influence of not-especially-famous reporters,” which isn’t the case. I gave a shout-out to Kaiser Health News, New England Journal, etc. — all great sources of actual healthcare journalism — but which only receive a fraction of the audience of Fox News or the Wall Street Journal.
My beef with Pollack was never that there wasn’t any good coverage — just that the bad coverage far, far outweighed the good.