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Death Panels Smite Journalism

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The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict.

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Never mind if some of the fury seemed unfocused or simply anti-Obama. Katy Abram was shown hundreds of times yelling at Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter: "I don't want this country turning into Russia. . . . What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?" She later popped up on Sean Hannity's Fox show, saying: "I know that years down the road, I don't want my children coming to me and asking me, 'Mom, why didn't you do anything? Why do we have to wait in line for, I don't know, toilet paper or anything?' "

Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air. "TV loves a ruckus," Obama complained more than once. In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn't get yelled at." There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, "Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we'll bring it to you."

If some Fox hosts seemed as sympathetic to the town-hall screamers as they were to last spring's tea-party protesters, MSNBC focused more on conservative efforts to organize the dissenters and whether they were half-crazed characters -- especially the few who rather chillingly stood outside Obama events with their guns.

Still, it was a stretch for White House officials, who have a huge megaphone, to blame media coverage for the sinking popularity of health reform. It was equally odd for Gibbs to tell reporters that stories about Obama backing away from a government-run health plan were "entirely contrived by you guys" -- this after Gibbs and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had said on Sunday morning shows that such a plan was not an essential part of Obama's proposal.

For all the sound and fury, news organizations have labored to explain the intricacies of the competing blueprints. "NBC Nightly News" ran a piece examining how Obama's public health-insurance option would work. ABC's "World News " did a fact check on the end-of-life provision in the bill. "CBS Evening News" highlighted problems with the current system by interviewing some of the 1,500 people waiting at a free makeshift clinic in Los Angeles. Time ran a cover story on health care, titled "Paging Dr. Obama." And major newspapers have been filled with articles examining the nitty-gritty details. Those who say the media haven't dug into the details aren't looking very hard.

But the healthy dose of coverage has largely failed to dispel many of the half-truths and exaggerations surrounding the debate. Even so, news organizations were slow to diagnose the depth of public unease about the unwieldy legislation. For the moment, the story, like the process itself, remains a muddle.

The Beck Boycott

The fallout continues over Glenn Beck assailing President Obama as a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred" of white people. About 20 companies -- including Procter & Gamble, Geico and ConAgra -- have now pulled their ads from his Fox News show.

Beck's charge was so incendiary -- and bizarre, considering that Obama's mother was white -- that even some conservatives winced. But boycotts rarely succeed in forcing anyone off the air, and indeed, Fox hasn't forfeited a dime. A Fox spokeswoman pointed to the network's statement: "The advertisers referenced have all moved their spots from Beck to other day parts on the network, so there has been no revenue lost."

Back to health-care . . .

Plenty of post-mortems out there on the president's push for reform, even though it still has a pulse. I've always felt the thing was too complicated, in a Hillarycare kind of way, and Peggy Noonan seizes on that:

"Every big idea that works is marked by simplicity, by clarity. You can understand it when you hear it, and you can explain it to people. Social Security: Retired workers receive a public pension to help them through old age. Medicare: People over 65 can receive taxpayer-funded health care. Welfare: If you have no money and cannot support yourself, we will help as you get back on your feet.


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