Nov 20 2009

Jodi Jacobson on the Stupak amendment, Barbara Miner on ‘merit pay’


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This week on CounterSpin: The Stupak Amendment, a last-minute addition to the House’s recently passed healthcare reform plan, would severely restrict abortion coverage for those on the “public option” part of the plan and those buying private insurance using government money. Many House Democrats journalists and pundits have portrayed Stupak as a sacrifice that must be made to get healthcare reform. Reproductive health advocates and many others differ. We’ll talk with Jodi Jacobson, editor of the RH Reality Check website.

Also on CounterSpin today, there’s a lot of talk in the media about education reform. That can mean a lot of things, but in the corporate media the ‘reformist’ label tends to be applied to any anyone who emphasizes improving test scores and, more importantly, going after the teachers unions. One big issue is so called merit pay, which we’re told the unions vehemently oppose. Barbara Miner from Rethinking Schools will join us to talk about the issue and how the media mishandle it.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—With virtually every poll showing the American public opposed to escalating the war in Afghanistan, prominent pundits and journalists have responded by… chastising the White House for taking too long to send more troops. Huh?

On ABC, anchor Charles Gibson wondered why Obama was still posing questions: “What new questions are there to be asked after all this time?” Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz replied: “Well, you would think he’d be through with the questions, Charlie.” A Los Angeles Times a column headlined “Obama Must Rethink Rethinking Afghanistan” told us that Obama “is in danger of giving deliberation a bad name.”

Over at the Washington Post, David Broder actually wrote that since there is no perfect option in Afghanistan, “the urgent necessity is to make a decision—whether or not it is right.” That sounds an awful lot like Glenn Beck’s declaration: “Believe in something! Even if it’s wrong! Believe in it!”

So where does all of this come from? Well it’s a given that centrist pundits are generally excited to cheer on U.S. military aggression. But there are some slight cracks in the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan, and that seems to have some media figures worried. The pushback against the White House’s Afghanistan decision, then, might not be about the speed with which the decision is made. The real problem is the public, who seem less troubled by the White House holding too many meetings about the war than they are about the wisdom of the war as a whole.

—The Washington Post on November 17 profiled Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas as one of the Democratic senators most likely to break with the rest of her party on healthcare reform. Headlined “A Centrist in Healthcare Debate, Lincoln Hears It From All Sides,” the piece presented Lincoln’s stance as something of a puzzle: “Hundreds of thousands of Lincoln’s constituents are low-income and lack insurance, the very kind of voters expected to benefit under the Senate bill.”

Reporter Shailagh Murray depicted Lincoln as being “pressed by both sides,” with Democratic activists angry at her turning against the idea of a public insurance option, and Republicans criticizing her “cautious approach to the healthcare debate.” The article mentions that the Internet activist group MoveOn has targeted Lincoln, noting the $3.5 million it threatens to spend on primary challenges against any Democratic senator who helps to block a healthcare vote.

So we learn that a lot of people don’t like Lincoln’s position on healthcare—but it doesn’t tell us who likes her position. For that information, we have to turn to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tells us that Lincoln has gotten $324,000 from the healthcare sector this year—more than any other senator besides majority leader Harry Reid, and the most of any lawmaker on one of the five committees that have debated healthcare bills. Could these contributions have anything to do with Lincoln’s political stance on this issue? The Washington Post doesn’t seem to think so—or if they do, they don’t want you to know about it.

—While there’s been a lot of controversy over Newsweek‘s recent Sarah Palin cover, an article by Evan Thomas turned out to have something more intriguing to say about Barack Obama, and how the establishment sees his presidency. Thomas is disappointed by the level of partisanship in Washington, which he asserts is not merely the fault of Republican naysayers:

Obama tried to foster bipartisanship at the outset of his administration, but he didn’t try very hard, and his fellow Democrats can be just as rigidly partisan on the left. Obama seems reduced to fencing with Fox News, which won’t get him very far or earn him a place in the history books.

It’s hard to imagine how much more ground Obama or Congressional Democrats could give. They added a bunch of non-stimulative tax cuts into their stimulus package to attract Republican support (which didn’t work anyway). They took the most progressive ideas off the table in the healthcare debate (single-payer and a robust public option), and in the House they adopted the “Stupak Amendment” limiting abortion rights. The White House sent almost 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and seems ready to send more.

Thomas isn’t the only one complaining about Obama’s partisanship; so what, exactly, is the point of this “Obama isn’t bipartisan enough” chatter? Thomas clues us in later in the piece—great presidents move to the middle: “Obama has so far failed to win the battle for the center. The post-election polls show that the country is, if anything, drifting to the right. Obama needs to win some of those drifters back if he wants to get things done.” A Democrat needs to go further right—somehow you just knew that would be the advice from the corporate media.

—The New York Times still refuses to call torture “torture.”

In a report about the upcoming trial of terrorism suspect Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times while in U.S. custody, the Times referred to waterboarding, as a “treatment that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has called torture.” The report offset Holder’s views with those of former Vice President Dick Cheney who says that it produced useful information. Apparently Holder’s views needed to be balanced by Cheney’s on a different subject.

But Holder’s views aside, torture is torture, as then-Times public editor Daniel Okrent concluded in response to a FAIR Action Alert in 2004: “But just as a terrorist is sometimes, in fact, a terrorist, torture is inescapably torture.”

Okrent pointed out that in the previous five years the Times had “used the word to describe the actions of authorities in Iraq, China, Mexico, Turkey, Chad and elsewhere,” and he cited the Times standards editor Allan Siegal’s definition of torture:

Torture occurs when a prisoner is physically or psychologically maltreated during the process of interrogation, or as punishment for some activity or political position.

Not a bad definition, but if Times reporters ignore it, what use is it for the paper to even have a standards editor or a public editor?

—And finally, many people strongly favor including more women’s voices in the news—and recognize that women don’t all share the same perspective. But that cause wasn’t especially well represented by PBS‘ Gwen Ifill on ABC‘s This Week on November 15. In a discussion about Sarah Palin, Ifill had this to contribute:

But let’s just point out—as the girl at the table, I feel like I can just say you cannot underestimate the degree to which women will be drawn to her story. And that’s who she’s speaking to. These are people who are ignored, who nobody counts into their thinking.

Hmm. It’s true that women are often ignored in political discourse-though what “not getting enough attention” and “Sarah Palin” have to do with each other is unclear. If Ifill is trying to make a point about Palin’s appeal to women, though…well, she winds up saying more about the “girl at the table”-since women in general, when they’ve been consulted on the matter, express rather less fascination with Sarah Palin. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from this month found 57 percent of women declaring an “unfavorable impression” of Palin, compared with 39 percent with a favorable one. This isn’t new of course; during the presidential campaign, Palin regularly polled less well with women than with men. And perhaps, with TV hosts.


CounterSpin: A real controversy has erupted over the Stupak Amendment which is part of the healthcare reform bill that recently emerged from the House of Representatives. The amendment would put strict limits on abortion coverage offered through a government-run insurance plan (the so-called public option) and through any private insurance purchased using government subsidies.

Joining us to talk about the Stupak Amendment is Jodi Jacobson, editor of the RH Reality Check website (the RH stands for Reproductive Health.) Jacobson has been covering Stupak and looking at how other journalists are reporting on the amendment.

Jodi Jacobson, welcome to CounterSpin!

Jodi Jacobson: Thank you so much for having me. I’m delighted to be on.

CS: Well, RH Reality Check and others supporting reproductive rights are concerned if not outraged that this amendment was inserted into the healthcare legislation in the 11th hour. Let’s begin with what you believe the Stupak Amendment would do and what’s at stake?

JJ: Well, there’s quite a lot at stake, actually. Just as reference and background, we have in place for almost 40 years, something called the Hyde Amendment, which says that no federal funding can be used to pay for abortion care except in cases where a woman has become pregnant due to rape, due to incest, or is pregnant with a life-threatening pregnancy—and the life-threatening part is fairly strict, so oftentimes women who are actually threatened with their life don’t actually get an abortion in a timely manner.

But that having been said, we have a federal policy in place for nearly 40 years, and that primarily affects low-income women because, you know, women who have private insurance are able to pay for their abortion care because 87 percent of women who are covered through private plans do have abortion care coverage. It’s poor women who lack that kind of coverage, and the Hyde Amendment has kind of created the dividing line between them.

But that being as it may, what the Stupak Amendment did, or is trying to do—it was passed in the House bill, but the Senate bill does not contain that language yet—it effectively expands a ban on abortion funding to all insurance plans. How does it do that? Well, one thing is that in the House plan, and also I believe in the Senate plan, there’s the creation of something called an insurance exchange, and basically it’s kind of like a marketplace where insurance plans go and they have certain things they have to provide, and they have to provide competitive rates for that, and people can go into that exchange and buy a plan. It’s expected that a large share of people who go into that plan, well over 10 million to start, will need federal subsidies for purchasing insurance.

Once a plan has any one person enrolled that receives a federal subsidy, that plan may not provide abortion coverage for anyone even if someone else in the plan is paying for the premiums entirely with their own dollars.

So just for arguments sake, lets say there are 100 people buying a plan from an insurange company called Cigna, and 5 of those people are getting federal subsidies for their coverage—all 100 people will be banned from getting abortion care. So 95 of those people could be paying entirely with their own premiums, but they cannot get it either. So the difference here, which is really astounding, is that is doesn’t apply to the individual, it applies to the plan. And that’s the first thing that is really remarkable, and we think, very dangerous about the Stupak Amendment.

CS: You’ve also pointed out that many journalists are not accurately reporting what the impact Stupak would be. I’m thinking of your November 16 piece about New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye, but you’ve written about other people, too. Tell us about that, and what in general are reporters getting wrong about Stupak?

JJ: Well, I’m finding two things, one of which I’m in the process of writing up and the other of which was in the Seelye article. One is that reporters have really not done their jobs in investigating the data that’s been put out there about this plan. For example, Katharine Seelye’s piece and a Wall Street Journal piece that came after that and other pieces after that have noted that oh well, the Stupak Amendment will only affect 13 percent of women.

In fact, the effect of the Stupak Amendment is far greater because what happens is is that by design the insurance exchange is meant to create a new platform for insurance coverage. So over time the number of people entering the insurance exchange will continue to grow for a couple of reasons. One: there are 45-odd million uninsured people in this country. There are millions more underinsured. There are people who are, because of the shift in the economy, losing their employer-based health insurance, and it’s assumed that over time people who have to buy insurance on their own and don’t get it through an employer will increasingly enter the public exchange—as well as employers, small businesses, and others will increasingly enter the exchange in order to purchase plans.

So to use some sort of figment figure that someone created that only 13 percent of the population at risk would be affected is really not to understand the import of this amendment as the insurance industry changes and as the intended affect of the intended reform bill changes the insurance industry competition. So that’s the first thing that I think a lot of reporters have been getting wrong.

The second thing, and I think this has been really shocking to me, I’ve seen it in Time Magazine—Karen Tumulty, I saw it yesterday in Ruth Marcus’ piece in the Washington Post—there’s almost a sort of classism going on, even among female journalists that are saying well, you know, poor women haven’t had this abortion coverage for a long time so we’re really just talking about them; other people will be able to afford abortion coverage out of pocket.

Well, the fact of the matter is twofold: one, we ought to be as worried about low-income women who have less access to birth control to begin with, less access to reproductive health care like things for breast exams, cervical cancer, and so forth, less access to information about sexually transmitted diseases. Many of these things are not mandated in this bill to begin with, so we’re leaving poor low-income women without adequate access to birth control and then we’re just assuming okay they don’t get abortion coverage either.

So that to me is a very classist thing, and I’ve been surprised. I’m used to seeing that from men, I’m used to seeing it from Chris Matthews, I haven’t been as used to seeing it from female commentators and female reporters, and it’s really permeated the commentary I’ve seen.

CS: Yeah, that piece you mentioned by Ruth Marcus on November 18—Marcus wrote “The Stupak Amendment is not worth killing health care reform over.” Well, so far, it seems like the Democrats and pundits who say that Stupak is a concession that must be made, are winning the day in the media. But can you give us a sense of how this is going over in women’s and reproductive rights circles? And do you see a real possibility of political consequences for Democrats sticking by Stupak?

JJ: Oh yeah. I would say that this is perhaps the single most galvanizing thing that has happened in the women’s rights community in a long time.

You know, for a long time, I think, this is my personal opinion, the reproductive health advocacy community has been too willing to compromise and not visionary enough about what they want and instead have sort of worked within the margins of what the Democratic Party will give them. I think this has been, if nothing else, a stunning wake up call that it’s time to change that strategy and to begin to demand that the Democratic Party respond to pro-choice voters because the pro-choice community spends a lot on politics. It represents quite literally the vast majority of voters in this country when you think about the fact that, you know, Catholic women, for example, have abortions and use contraception at the same rate as the rest of population.

Eighty-five percent of Catholic women use contraception. When you think about the fact that one in three women in their lifetimes have an abortion. When you think about the fact that virtually every woman uses contraception at some point in her life. These are really core issues for women’s health; they’re really core issues for women’s rights.

And so I think what basically the message that’s been delivered to the Democratic Party is we’re tired of this, we’re not compromising on this any longer, we’re not letting you erode our rights any further. Abortion is part of healthcare, contraception is part of healthcare, and we are no longer playing in this sandbox. We’re really going to pull out from working so hard for the Democratic Party, not a penny more until we start getting some traction on these issues.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Jodi Jacobson. She’s the editor at the RH Reality Check website.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Jodi Jacobson!

JJ: Thank you so much for having me.


CounterSpin: On the November 15 edition of the NBC Sunday show Meet the Press, there was an education reform panel featuring Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and Arne Duncan, the Education Secretary. While on the surface that may sound like a balanced, bipartisan discussion, in reality the three are on roughly the same side in the debate over education reform.

It happens to be the side that seems to get the most play in the media too, with emphasis on test scores, accountability and pushing reforms that are often opposed by teachers, or so we’re told. It’s that last category that might be where the bar is set in the media—if you’re ready to fight the teachers unions, you’re a reformer. This is especially true when it comes to the issue known most often as merit pay—usually reduced to the simple-sounding idea that you pay better teachers more money.

So is it really that simple? Barbara Miner wrote about this for the most recent issue of Rethinking Schools. She’s a writer and columnist there and she joins us now by telephone.

Welcome to CounterSpin Barbara Miner!

Barbara Miner: Thank you, Peter.

CS: Well, the starting point in the media discussion over “merit pay” seems to be that there are good ideas out there, and teachers are blocking them.

Jonathan Alter from Newsweek wrote that on one side there are Obama, the reformers, the charter schools, and “on the other side are the teachers’ unions and their incrementalist enablers in the political class.” Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times was a little more hopeful, but still put the emphasis on the unions: “I’m hoping the unions will come round and cooperate with evidence-based reforms, using their political clout to push to raise teachers’ salaries rather than to protect ineffective teachers.”

One lesson I take from your article in Rethinking Schools is that this is a bad place to start this discussion over “merit pay.”

BM: Well, first of all, the very term merit pay is a misnomer and when I went to do this article, it was well do an article on merit pay, and it took about five minutes—and any media person with half a brain would only take five minutes—to find out that the debate is not about merit pay, because everyone knows merit pay is a nonstarter because of it’s long and sordid and abysmal failure. I mean, in fact, even Arne Duncan and Barack Obama do not use the term merit pay in their speeches because they know it’s a nonstarter.

What is an interesting debate and is a huge debate within unions, although you wouldn’t know it from the media, is there’s all sorts of discussion about should we move beyond the traditional pay structure? And you have any number of very progressive and very committed unionists saying of course we should.

The question is we don’t want it done to teachers in a top-down, heavy-handed, punitive way; we teachers want to use contracts and pay to promote better teaching. But, you know, that’s a more complicated discussion and so the media—and I’m part of the media—it’s just easier to have a simple headline that reduces a complicated topic to a wrong and simple soundbite.

CS: You alluded to this a little bit, but when coverage talks about teachers as obstacles more often than they talk to teachers, you’re left with this impression that teachers have just dismissed this ideas out of hand. But are there good reasons to oppose the sorts of pay plans that we’ve seen over the last few years?

BM: Well, the problem is everyone wants to be very general: “teachers want, unions want.” Well, first of all, there are millions of teachers and to try and pretend that teachers want one thing is as crazy as saying white people want, politicians want, black people want, I mean, there’s just a variety of topics out there.

Within that, your best teachers—and I’m sure one would hope that you would build a reform package around the best teachers—they want something that treats teachers as professionals, that listens to what will work in the classroom. I mean, my husband’s a classroom teacher and has been for 30 years, and it drives him nuts with these simplistic solutions, and he said, have these people spent a day in front of 30 crazy ten year olds? Because what you need is you need something that will improve teaching, and some of these things are more about political soundbites and simplistic do-the-down-and-dirty easy solution than really asking teachers hey, what will work to improve teaching?

CS: Yeah, there is this idea that reform is easy—you just fire bad teachers and good teachers come in and take their place, problem solved.

BM: Right, and where are we going to get these good teachers, hmmm? Let me think…

CS:Yeah, well, one of the assumptions in this discussion that I’ve seen—and you addressed this quite well in the article—is that there is this idea that if you pay people who perform at a high level more than other people, that’s just the way the world works. That might be hard for anyone who’s ever had a job to swallow; is there much evidence that teachers are just being asked to work the same way as everyone else does in every other industry?

BM: Well, there’s two things. One is how do you rate what’s a good teacher? I mean, in this day and age people go, we’ll go to the standardized tests. Well any student, anyone who’s ever taken a standardized test knows that you don’t reduce knowledge to filling in a little bubble in a test.

Also the tests really are basically in math and reading. Well, what about history teachers what about music teachers, what about art teachers? It reduces learning to this simplistic black and white fill in the bubble testing. And any good teachers knows that teaching is much more about developing a child, not about trying to reach a sort of snapshot test score. And the other thing that you raised about, what about people in other sectors? Well, I would just refer people to the Economic Policy Institute—you can google them in about three seconds—they’ve a great study that relatively few private sector workers have pay that varies in a direct, formulaic way.

So this whole thing about well, everyone else gets paid for performance—well, it’s not really true. The people who get paid for performance by and large are people who are in the banking and financial industries. It’s called pay for performance; it’s not, because as we all know who read these stories on Goldman Sachs, they’re getting incredible bonuses, and their performance is lousy.

CS: Not exactly a great model. The idea is, the simple idea, I guess, is that if your students score higher, you get to make more—and it seems so black and white, the media tend to reduce it to that. But there has been some media coverage that’s been helpful. You cited a study of Florida, the Florida plan, by the St. Petersburg Times. Tell us a little bit about what they did.

BM: Well, interestingly, Florida is called the poster child for how to do pay for performance wrong. And the St. Petersburg Times, which is a well-respected newspaper, they did an investigation, and they went below some of the soundbites, and for example, they found that about 75 percent of the teachers who were getting merit pay in Hillsborough County, well they worked at the more affluent schools, and only 3 percent worked in low-income schools.

Well, what’s interesting about that is anyone who knows anything about test scores, there’s what people call the Volvo effect. You look for the driveways with Volvos and BMWs and invariably there’s a correlation between more affluent schools, and students, and families, and higher test scores. Complicated reason, but no one denies the correlation. So here’s a program that was designed to help low-income schools, allegedly, was so poorly conceived that most of the people getting the money worked in the schools that were already high income.

CS: So raises for teachers who were…

BM: Raises for teachers who are in the ideal schools. And that’s not what we need.

CS: I want to ask you finally, the debate over this has been so black and white in the media, and I think generally about education reform the media do seem to have good guys and bad guys pretty well defined. Why do you think that is?

BM: Why does the media…why did it for decades dismiss global warming? Why did the media jump on the bandwagon to invade Iraq under George W.? It’s a complicated topic, and I understand why reporters are—they’re just working their tails off a lot of them and they’re getting cut back. At the same time, though, there does have to be a responsibility to go beyond the easy press release by the politician who’s hoping to score a point.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Barbara Miner. You can read her article, “The Debate Over Differentiated Pay: The Devil is In the Details” at

Barbara Miner, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

BM: Well, thank you, Peter.


RH Reality Check

–“The Debate Over Differentiated Pay: The Devil is In the Details,” by Barbara Miner (Rethinking Schools, Autumn 2009)