At the CNN-Tea Party Express debate on Monday night, host Wolf Blitzer and candidate Ron Paul went back and forth over a hypothetical: What if a man who decided not to buy health insurance somehow ended up in a coma?
Paul responded with his usual platitudes about freedom and risks. Blitzer, though, wanted an actual answer: “Congressman, are you saying society should just let him die?” Then came the moment that’s been churned in various headlines on the Internet. Examples:
A fact-check is required here. Have a look at the clip:
A few jeers? Yes. Heckles? No question. “Audience” cheers? No way.
The voices that can be heard in the video — perhaps two or three of them — don’t constitute an “audience” reaction. There were 1,100 people in the crowd. The episode is the clumsy work of a few loons or meatheads in the audience.
A fine headline would read: “Debate hecklers cheer death of uninsured.”
Under what circumstances would it be fair to characterize the “audience” as cheering something gloomy? Well, recent events furnish a handy case study.
During the Sept. 7 NBC/Politico GOP debate, Brian Williams made U.S. political history by merely prefacing a question. In addressing Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Williams started out his inquiry:
Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times —
Applause! From all corners of the Reagan Library arena, clapping could be heard. Media outlets, in turn, rightly recorded the moment in their headlines. For example, Real Clear Politics: Reagan Debate Audience Applauds Texas’ Rate of Executions
There’s simply no equivalency between these two episodes.
Getting back to the Wolf Blitzer-Ron Paul exchange, the “hypothetical” dimension bears on the storyline as well. As any comedian will tell you, joking or heckling over a fictional death is much different from doing likewise over the death of an actual individual. It’s just barely in poor taste.
Arguing that Tea Party ideology is callous requires little exertion. The Tea Partyers at the CNN debate, for example, exulted when Texas Gov. Rick Perry got slammed by his opponents for helping illegal immigrants pay for their education. And the movement has made a priority of shouting down all talk of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Yet let’s not allow the notion that a Tea Party “audience” cheered the death of an uninsured man leech into the conversation. That didn’t happen.