Media Notes: Journalism's slide into health-debate weariness

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010; C01

It was the story that refused to die.

Sunday's last-gasp passage of President Obama's health care bill will finally liberate the journalists who have been chained to this complicated, arcane, often tedious story for 14 long months.

It's not that media types were rooting for the House to drag the measure across the finish line. It's that many were frustrated by a tangled tale that never seemed to end, and knew that plenty of readers and viewers were sick of the subject as well.

The conventional wisdom is that the press failed to educate the public about the bill's sweeping changes, leaving much of America confused about just what it contained. That is largely a bum rap, for the media churned out endless reams of data and analysis that were available to anyone who bothered to look.

As time went on, though, journalists became consumed by political process and Beltway politics, to the point that the substance of health care reform was overwhelmed. Here the plea is guilty-with-an-explanation: The battle came down to whether the Senate could adopt changes by majority vote (reconciliation) and, until late Saturday, whether the House could approve the Senate measure without a recorded vote (deem and pass). With the bill's fate hanging by these procedural threads, there was no way to avoid making that the overriding story. (And yes, the Senate reconciliation vote is still to come.)

History is written by the winners, and sometimes by the leakers. Thus, the New York Times and Politico began lengthy Sunday tick-tocks on the battle with Nancy Pelosi privately confronting Obama and Rahm Emanuel over a scaled-down version of the bill that, according to both accounts, she dismissed as "kiddie care." The odds that her staff provided such colorful details are high.

Trudy Lieberman, a longtime specialist in health reporting, offers a harsh verdict in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. She says the press coverage "has been largely incoherent to the man on the street . . . failed to illuminate the crucial issues, [and] quoted special interest groups and politicians without giving consumers enough information to judge if their claims were fact or fiction."

And there was no lack of journalistic shortcomings. When anger erupted at those town hall meetings last summer, much of the media wrote them off as a spectacle. Reporters were slow to recognize the growing public anger at Obamacare and what "tea party" enthusiasts viewed as out-of-control federal spending.

Journalists struggled to say exactly what was in health-care reform because as Obama allowed congressional leaders to take the lead, there were multiple versions floating around the Hill at any one time. Remember the months and column inches we wasted on Max Baucus and the Gang of Six, the Senate group that was going to hammer out a bipartisan compromise? That collapsed after many forests were sacrificed on its behalf.

When the polls turned against the president's push, journalists did what they usually do in campaigns: Beat up on those whose numbers are sagging. Stories shifted from preexisting conditions and individual mandates to whether Obama had staked his presidency on an overly ambitious scheme that Congress was unlikely to accept (and, inevitably, how much was Emanuel's fault). From there it was a short jog to the rise of political polarization, the death of bipartisanship and the erosion of Obama's influence -- legitimate undertakings that again shoved the health-care arguments to the back of the bus.

One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of "death panels." After Sarah Palin floated the idea that government commissions would decide which ailing patients deserved to be saved, journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue.

But such black-and-white judgments were difficult with many of the provisions. How many people would defy the mandate to buy insurance? How much would a tax on "Cadillac" health plans raise? Would Congress have the stomach to deeply cut Medicare? How many people would be eligible for the much-ballyhooed public option? For that matter, what exactly is the difference between a public option and state-run insurance exchanges?

All this was like nailing Jell-O to the wall. As soon as a media consensus would form, it seemed, the legislation would change. And CJR's Lieberman has a point: Too many stories quoted dueling experts without making a concerted, serious effort to sort out the facts. Even the much-awaited "scores" from the Congressional Budget Office were treated gingerly, since the agency had to hedge its bets in projecting what might happen a decade from now.

It was sooo much easier to write another story about the latest Tiger mistress to go public.

The press did a good job of highlighting backroom deals--the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase -- that polluted the process. But the larger narrative came to resemble a long-running soap opera in which the plot made sense only if you had been following all the previous twists and turns.

Against this backdrop, the cable news chatter broke down along ideological lines. The health-care bill was either a valiant attempt to fix a broken system but didn't go far enough (as some MSNBC hosts had it) or an unsavory attempt to shove America down the road to bankrupting socialism (as some Fox News hosts warned). On Sunday, Fox rotated news anchors with such opinion hosts as Neil Cavuto, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity; liberal host Ed Schultz co-anchored much of MSNBC's coverage, joined mainly by liberal guests and former Democratic staffers.

In the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest. If you're a high-information person who routinely plows through 2,000-word newspaper articles, you had a reasonably good grasp of the arguments. For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.

Once the law takes effect -- its provisions stretched out over years -- perhaps journalists can help separate rhetoric from reality. That is, if we don't lose interest and move to the next hot controversy.

Too good to check?

Politico's strong health care coverage last week was marred by a boneheaded move.

A reporter posted a blog item Friday on what purported to be a House Democratic staff memo on adjusting future Medicare reimbursement rates, without saying it had been provided by Republican sources. Democrats called the document fabricated, and Politico pulled it.

The Web site, known for its fast-paced style, said it wasn't clear if the memo was "an outright hoax" and that it was following "an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: When in doubt, leave it out." Actually, a better rule of thumb would have been verifying before publishing.

Defending Beck

When Roger Ailes sat down with his Washington bureau staffers last week, he was asked about my column on the deep divide within Fox News over the growing prominence and controversial remarks of Glenn Beck.

"For the first time in our 14 years we've had people apparently shooting in the tent from within the tent . . . taking an offhand comment and turning this into a major war," network sources quote the Fox News chairman as saying. "We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent." As several blogs have reported, Ailes also said that Beck's show is "his opinion, it's not the opinion of Fox News."

And he seemed to suggest the unnamed dissenters work in Washington: "Defend the family if you can; if you really have a problem go to your supervisor." Or leave: "There are no locks on the outside of our doors."

Beck has his supporters, but the discontent reaches well beyond the nation's capital. The dateline on that column was New York.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company