Frontline Disguises Single-Payer Advocates as Public-Option Promoters

The PBS program Frontline on April 13 offered a look at the White House drive for healthcare reform titled Obama’s Deal. Like a previous Frontline special about the U.S. healthcare system, the program failed to adequately include single-payer. But the way the show did it this time was remarkable.

Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Programwas interviewed by Frontline–leading one to suspect thatthe show might include some discussion of truly universal healthcare systems like single-payer (aka Medicare for All).

But the program was a major disappointment. As she wrote (Consortium News, 4/15/10) after it aired, “Curiously, just as it was in the health ‘debate,’ single-payer, improved Medicare for All, was also excluded from the film.”

The strange thing is that Flowers actually appears on theshow (albeit briefly), in a scene recounting how single-payer activists disrupted a Senate Finance Committee hearing last May.But the protesters’ views are muddled by Frontline.

As the program explained it,insurance industry lobbyists were working to kill the public option from the Senate bill. At this pointsingle-payer activists appear. As Flowers explained:

The producers at Frontline carefully cut single-payer out of the film. When the host, Mr. [Michael] Kirk, interviewed me for “Obama’s Deal,” we spoke extensively of the single-payer movement and my arrest with other single-payer advocates in the Senate Finance Committee last May. However, our action in Senate Finance was then misidentified as “those on the left” who led a “counterattack” because of “liberal outrage” at being excluded.

The framing of the Frontline segment would lead viewers to believe these activistswere public-option proponents, which they are not. Groups like PNHP were critical of the public option–a government-run insurance plan that would be offered to some as an alternative to mandatory private health insurance–arguing that it would leave the insurance industry intact as dominant players in the healthcare business.

After Frontline aired footage of the arrests of single-payer activists, a voicesays: “So what Chairman Baucus has decided this option cannot be part of the discussion at a Senate hearing? Now, I think that’s wrong. I don’t think it’s fair.” The implication was that “option” here refers to the public option– since no other option had been mentioned.

That voice was actually MSNBC host Ed Schultz–a supporter ofsingle-payer. His full quote (5/7/09) would have made that clear:

Now, let me explain single-payer for just a minute.

The money comes from one source, the government. Now, you and I pay taxes, OK. The government pays the bill. It’s that simple.

Patients are not caught in the middle between doctors and insurance companies, no game-playing here. There’s no middleman. You know? There’s no decision-makers between you and your doctor. It’s a clean deal.

So what Chairman Baucus has decided, this option cannot be part of the discussion at a Senate hearing? Now, I think that’s wrong. I don’t think it’s fair.

Thussingle-payer activists weretransformed into advocates for the public option.

This is not the first time that Frontline has decided that a conversation about healthcare reform should exclude single-payer from the discussion. The March 31, 2009 Frontline special Sick Around America avoided discussions of national healthcare plans. This omission led Frontline correspondent T.R. Reid–who had hosteda previous Frontline special (4/15/08) that examined various public healthcare models– to withdraw from the project.

PBS ombud Michael Getler agreed with those who thought the show missed a chance to discuss single-payer. It looks like the program has done so again.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.