Nov 13 2009

Trudy Lieberman on healthcare, Laurie Williams & Allan Zabel on cap & trade


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This week on CounterSpin : a source from a senior citizens group quoted in the Washington Post said the group’s main challenge today is simply to try to keep the record straight about what’s actually in the health care reform bill, as opposed to what’s being claimed about it. That would seem to be the basic challenge facing reporters, too, but have they been too caught up with coverage of congressional politicking to do justice to it? We’ll hear from journalist Trudy Lieberman on the health care reform story.

Also on the show: Two EPA lawyers have been speaking out against cap and trade climate legislation, saying that these schemes won’t do enough to reduce carbon emissions. Making their position public has got them into trouble with the agency, and certainly puts them at odds with leading Democrats and the Obama White House. We’ll speak with Laurie Williams and Alan Zabel about their infrequently heard position on cap and trade.

But first let’s take a look back at the week’s press.

—You probably heard about the handful of special elections this month; mostly what you heard were media outlets and pundits wildly overestimating their significance to the rest of the country. Republican candidates won gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, while Democratic candidates won two special elections for the U.S. House of Representatives in New York and California. But to much of the media, the Republican victories were seen as sending an important message about national politics—that voters were discontented with the White House and wanted Democrats to move to the right.

Those election results, according to the L.A. Times, “dispelled any notion of President Obama’s electoral invincibility”—as if he’d been confused with Superman. The Obama administration’s downplaying of the election’s significance was “the White House spin machine at full throttle,” according to CNN‘s Lou Dobbs. The implication was that the elections were, as one AP account put it, “a troubling sign for the president and his party.”

But were they? Exit polls in Virginia and New Jersey seemed to show that voters were showing up to… well, vote in statewide elections, not to send a message about Barack Obama. But that’s less important than the chance to underscore corporate media’s traditional advice that the Democrats need to move to the right. This time around, that seemed to translate into the need to water down an already watered-down health reform bill. At least that’s the lesson the Washington Post editorial page promoted on November 5, when they stressed that if “centrist lawmakers” were bolstered in the healthcare debate as a result of the election, that “would be a welcome consequence of Tuesday night.” No word on the anti-healthcare reform significance of the Yankees’ World Series win.

—Some people take an incident like the tragic killing of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army post by an Army psychiatrist as a chance to point out how communities can draw together in response to a crisis. And then there are people like CNN‘s Lou Dobbs, who see any time as a good time for a thinly veiled slur intended to push people further apart. On his November 9th show Dobbs declared: “I think we should point out, too, for the first time in my memory in eight years, we have seen quickly CAIR step up on the day of the shootings, the largest representative of the Islamic faith step up, and condemn the shootings instantly.” Dobbs is talking about the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This is a group that issued a condemnatory public statement on September 11, 2001, that spearheaded a 2004 petition called Not In the Name of Islam, that issued a fatwa, or Islamic religious ruling, against terrorism in 2005 that was endorsed by more than 340 American Muslim groups. CAIR has noted that despite their record of consistently and persistently condemning terrorism, “American Muslim groups like CAIR get repeatedly asked the question why have Muslims not spoken out against terrorism? The fact is they have, but who is listening?”

Well, our listeners may have heard that Dobbs left his show as of this week. Until he reappears somewhere else, CNN viewers will have things like this to remember him by.

—With much of the health care discussion in Washington dominated by the various compromises of Democratic lawmakers, the corporate media’s default position has generally been to cheer on these concessions to the right. But how do you present such a strategy so it looks like common sense rather than selling out? In part by making words mean just what you want them to mean, a la Lewis Carroll. Take the November 10 New York Times headline, “Trick for Democrats Is Juggling Ideology and Pragmatism.” The lead sentence tells readers that “Democrats have displayed a striking degree of pragmatism in seeking to push the health care bill through Congress,

embracing or rejecting ideological considerations as needed to keep the legislation moving.”

The paper couldn’t be clearer that ideology and pragmatism are in conflict; but look at how those terms are being defined. In the case of health care reform, the Times means by “ideology” policy ideas, like single-payer or a truly robust public plan, that are popular with voters and that would be more likely to reduce the costs of the health care system and cover more people. By “pragmatism,” the paper means concessions and trade-offs Democrats have made in an attempt to win conservative and industry support, excluding coverage for abortion services, for example—in other words, things that won’t lead to reduced costs or increased coverage, the ostensible goals of the reform. The paper’s labels wind up saying much more about their world view than their vocabulary.

—It’s no surprise that many of the loudest media voices on the right have been making some of the most ridiculous comments throughout the debate over health care. Fox News Channel‘s Bill O’Reilly might be more subdued than his Fox colleagues Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck—which says more about them than it does about him—but on November 4 O’Reilly complained about a proposed tax increase in the House bill: “Nancy Pelosi and her far-left crew want to raise the top federal tax rate to 45 percent. That’s not capitalism. That’s Fidel Castro stuff, confiscating wages that people honestly earn.”

By that reckoning of course, Fidel Castro or someone like him must have been the president of the United States in the mid-1980s, when the top federal tax rate was 50 percent. And for all of the 1970s, when it was 70 percent. And most certainly from 1950-1963, when it was 91 percent. It seems the No Spin Zone is a No History Zone as well.

—And finally, in an interview with Sky News Australia, News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch responded to a question about Glenn Beck’s comment from July when Beck said he believed President Obama is “a racist.” Here’s a clip from that interview:

On the racist thing, that caused a (unintelligible—grilling?). But he (Obama) did make a very racist comment. Ahhh… about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, you know, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.

Well then, there you have it. Of course Beck was right that Obama is racist because after all, he did say something about “you know, blacks and whites and so on.” But before you suggest that Murdoch is insensitive to racism, or perhaps doesn’t have a clue what it is, remember that he is the guy who, as blogger Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution reminded us, was described in a Vanity Fair interview as “propounding the genetic theory that the basic problem of the Muslim people was that they married their cousins.”


CounterSpin: A November 12 New York Times story on the health care reform legislation now before the House recites Republican claims that the bill will “destroy the economy and the health insurance system,” along with Democratic supporters’ contention that it would “help the uninsured, older people, small businesses and others in each Congressional district.” And there the story ends. Reporting on politicking per se, claims and counterclaims is part of any legislative story, certainly. But have reporters kept their focus on the most central human questions about health care reform during this process? Why do key questions about exactly who will be covered and how much it will cost only seem to be coming forward now?

Our next guest has been following the coverage of the process, including what’s been missing from it, for years now, really. Trudy Lieberman directs the health and medical reporting program in the graduate school of journalism at City University of New York, she’s contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and writes for CJR‘s online Campaign Desk. She joins us now by phone.

Welcome back to CounterSpin, Trudy Lieberman!

Trudy Lieberman: Thank you.

CS: Well, a couple of your pieces on health care have been headlined “The Devil in the Details,” and what’s weird is that these things—who will be covered? At what expense to them?—are of course actually not details, but the core of reform. They have sometimes looked like details in coverage, though. Which has looked a little bit sometimes like politics minus the people. You started as a consumer reporter at Detroit Free Press, and worked at Consumer Reports for many years. Has health care reform been a sufficiently consumer-angled story, to your mind?

TL: No, I would say absolutely not, and I’ve been following this latest round of health reform for the last a two years, and what has always been missing from the coverage has been the people’s stories. How are ordinary individuals going to be affected by this legislation, and we haven’t seen very much of it during the campaign. We were seeing so little of it that we went out and did our own series. We went down to Helena, Arkansas, which is a river town on the Mississippi, and interviewed a number of people who represented the whole social strata of the town and tried to place them in the McCain proposal and the Obama proposal. And we did that to try to encourage the rest of the media to do the same in their own backyards, but not very many of them did. So now we are at the eve of passing the bill, perhaps, and we still haven’t seen that kind of coverage. And it has just mystified us at about why that hasn’t happened, and we’ve written about it from time to time. Most people are just now beginning to understand that there’s going to be this individual mandate, which is the requirement that they’re going to have to carry health insurance. And I think people are really not aware of that, that they will either have to get coverage from an employer, a public program like MediCare, or they’ll have to buy it in the individual insurance market. So they don’t really understand that. And I think once they get to that point, they don’t understand how it will work and how much they have to pay. This whole notion of penalties if they don’t buy policies has not really been discussed a lot; it’s just been glossed over. Nor has the issue of affordability, which I think is really a key issue here in the debate, and it really isn’t being discussed. How much will I or my family have to pay out of pocket for this?

CS: There’s almost a tone in coverage that this is uncharted territory, and that almost justifies broadcasting claims about how it might wreck this or save that… But we do have a case study of sorts to look at, which is Massachusetts, which passed a reform law in 2006 that mandated that almost everyone have insurance. What would looking at that tell us about what to expect nationally?

TL: Well we’ve been perplexed about that as well—why the media has not looked at Massachusetts, and we’ve done that, I’ve done nine posts throughout the year so far and have a couple more to go that have really looked in depth at what’s happening in Massachusetts. And every time I do one, I come back thinking you know, there are some problems up here that are not being discussed. The biggest problem I think that I’ve found is that the program is not affordable to a lot of people who have to buy under the tax penalty, and so what’s happening is that a lot of people are taking the coverage because they have to, and then dropping it after they get their health care taken care of. So what the insurance companies are saying is that they’re finding a lot of people gaming the system, which of course is a recipe for disaster because people will come into the risk pool, and they can come in and go out whenever they want, pay the penalty, come back in. And so what that means is that is just raises the price of premiums for everybody else, and a lot of people up there are really worried. And when you talk to ordinary people in Massachusetts, they will talk about this affordability question. They’ll say they can’t afford to spend 10 or 12 percent of their income on health insurance. I think that that’s what’s going to happen nationally when people realize that in those bills, they may have to pay 10 or 12 percent of their income. And for a family making $66,000, that’s 300 percent of poverty—they’re going to have to pay, say, $8,000 if it’s 12 percent and $6,000 and change if it’s 10 percent, so how many families do you know at that income level that have that kind of money sitting around to buy a health insurance policy?

CS: Well, and of course affordability was meant to be one of the basic reasons that we were talking about reforming the system in the first place. Well, if we’re talking about cost containment as the goal, I think many progressives might recognize that fundamentally changing the role of insurers would help serve that end (whether or not they think it’s politically possible, etc., etc.). But insurance companies aren’t the only piece of the cost puzzle, are they?

TL: In essence, they are really not the reason why costs are high. The costs in the system are coming from the providers. They’re coming from doctors, and hospitals, and drug companies, and device makers, and biotech firms, and all those people and entities that provide the medical care. Insurers in this country, because we’ve chosen the system that we have, just simply pass these costs along. Yes, they do some risk selection. Yes, they take a mark up so to speak. But they are really not the total cost drivers in the system, and I think they’ve been demonized in a sense for playing that role. And it again surprised us at that the providers have really been let off the hook on this one. Nobody has really been talking about the role that doctors play.

CS: Well, a cynical sense might suggest that reporters are going to some degree blame the people if and when this reform turns out not to lower costs for families or for the government. I expect we’ll be hearing that people didn’t know what they wanted, that people weren’t willing to give up X, failed to understand that Y. But it seems like one of the more remarkable things really has been how people, despite a lot of confusion coming from the press, have been pretty consistent and clear in what they do want from a health care system. Those concerns just haven’t seemed to crack the media framework if you will.

TL: Well, I think a lot of people do believe in single payer, and there’s a very vocal subset of people who really want that kind of health care system. On the other hand, we have another group of people and a lot of advocacy groups that have kind of helped frame the debate, and so we have really in some ways foreclosed discussion on all kinds of other options. And I wrote about this in the July issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, and we called it Groundhog Day for health care because we’re really having the same debate we’ve always had in this country. And so there was a sort of preordained framework from which we were going to discuss health care reform. And I think that that is what we are seeing in the House bill and certainly whatever comes out of the Senate will be following that script as well.

CS: Well it seems that people, when you ask them, nobody says they want to pay more for health insurance whether or not they know about single payer or what the public option is, people say I’d like to not have to chose between heating my home and caring for my children when they’re sick.

TL: I’m afraid that may still be the case for many people.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Trudy Lieberman. She’s the author of Slanting the Story: The Forces That Shape the News, among other titles. You can follow her reporting on health care reform, as we’ve been discussing, at Thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin!

TL: Thank you.


CounterSpin: If you’ve followed the slow-moving debate over cap and trade climate legislation in Washington, you’re probably familiar with two positions on this issue: on the one hand are Democrats and many environmental groups who support the bills in the House and Senate. On the other side are some business groups and Republicans who oppose cap and trade for being a prohibitively expensive solution to the non-existent problem of climate change. Left mostly unmentioned is a more radical idea: that cap and trade won’t actually work to reduce carbon emissions, and is based on a fundamentally flawed premise.

Joining us now to expand on that idea are Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel. They are attorneys at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco office. Their views are not intended to represent the views of US EPA or the Obama Administration—they’re speaking out as private citizens. The fact that they are speaking out at all adds another element to this story, since the EPA instructed the couple to edit a video they had posted explaining their views on their website.

Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, welcome to CounterSpin.

Laurie Williams: Thank you.

CS: Well now the way I understand cap and trade is that we would set limits on the carbon emissions of polluting industries. Companies would see it, therefore, in their self-interest to reduce their emissions to meet those targets or they could buy something called an “offset” if they exceeded those limits and still wanted to play by the rules. And thus the free-ish market would work to reduce carbon emissions. Sometimes there are even references in news articles to how this worked to reduce acid rain, for example. Allan, tell us very briefly why you think this approach just wouldn’t work.

Allan Zabel: That cap and trade program did not have offsets. It was limited to a few hundred coal fire power plants. Cap and trade was tried for climate change. It has been tried in Europe, and it was a pretty much a failure. It resulted in price volatility, big increases in utility prices for consumers, windfall profits for utilities, and very little in the way of greenhouse gas reductions.

CS: As I understand it, and I’ve seen a couple of articles about this, the economists who kind of thought up cap and trade as a model don’t think it will work for carbon, is that right?

AZ: That’s correct.

CS: Laurie, what would work, then? Your website is called, so I suspect that’s one clue. What kind of system do you think would make more sense?

LW: What we think, and many prominent economists agree, is that the major obstacle to getting large greenhouse gas reductions is the fact that uncontrolled fossil fuel energy remains a lot cheaper than clean energy at this moment. And in order to change that what we need to do is gradually phase in a fee on fossil fuels as they enter the economy, where they’re most easily measured at three or four thousands points around the country. And then what you would do is you would phase those in over 10-15 years to ensure that those prices for uncontrolled fossil fuel energy rise above the price of existing clean energy alternatives. So what that would do is it would do two things: it would shift incentives for people to invest in clean energy, and it would also make consumers want to chose more energy-efficient alternatives. But in order to make sure that energy stays affordable, what we recommend, and many economists would agree would be effective, is to give a monthly per person rebate to all consumers so that they can still afford the energy they need. This would not interfere with their incentives, though, for energy efficiency because they would basically only be right where they are today if they use basically the average amount of fossil fuels and they would be better off if they use less, they would suffer higher prices if they use more.

CS: So the benefit would flow directly to citizens and not to industry.

LW: Right. This is a simple, enforceable approach that would correct the incentives they’re keeping, you know, huge greenhouse gas emissions going from fossil fuels today.

CS: When you try to understand the cap and trade system, one of the thing, one of the stumbling blocks seems to be these offsets, which seem like a loophole for industry to say we can’t reduce our emissions but we’re going to get credit for someone else not generating additional carbon. Is that, Allan, what those mean?

AZ: Yes, these are claimed greenhouse gas reductions outside of the cap sectors which are used to increase emissions inside the cap. The problem is, especially when you have international offsets as both bills do, you’re subjecting this to the international market. And when you’re trying to track activities all over the world, and you can, for example, preserve a forest in the United States and that sequesters carbon, but then if the demand for the wood is still there, a forest in British Columbia gets cut and the wood shipped down to the United States. So there’s really no way to protect that on a worldwide basis. You need perfect economic knowledge in order to do that, and that’s just not practical. You might even be able to eliminate a few of the more egregious examples of that, but for every one you eliminate, it’s like playing the whack-a-mole game, several more are going to sprout up to take its place.

CS: Now the conventional media debate over cap and trade seems to be reduced to Democrats and some very high profile environmental groups on one side saying this is a good start or this is a very good start, and Republicans and climate change deniers on the other side calling this an expensive job-killing disaster. Laurie, what do you make of that dynamic—why do you think a position like yours is so seldom heard in the media discussion?

LW: Well, our theory about that at the moment is a couple of things. One is certainly there are no powerful special interests pushing for our alternative, and it’s received very little publicity, so the public has not had a chance to push for it yet. That is what we’re hoping will happen in the very near future. I think as to major environmental groups, what happened is that before it became clear how urgent climate change really was, they wanted to see if a coalition with some business groups would be successful at getting past business resistance to a climate change solution. They entered into a group called USCAP, which basically proposed the Waxman Markey legislation that we’re, that same model that’s now being considered in the Senate.

CS: Well, one of the reasons your story the both of you has attracted so much attention is that the EPA has instructed you to edit some portions of a video you posted on your website. You co-wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, so it’s not as if you were hiding your views on this issue of cap and trade. Tell us about this First Amendment angle to your story. Why is it so important for you to speak up right now?

AZ: Well, we do have ethical clearance to speak up on climate change issues as private citizens. It’s just that we did not understand those restrictions would prohibit us from mentioning our length of service and the nature of our experience at EPA.

CS: And what do you hope to do by writing these op-eds and speaking out?

AZ: Well, we did not intend to violate those restrictions, but actually we think that those restrictions may be applicable if you have employees who are trying to profit from their outside activities. But we feel that they may not be Constitutional when applied to employees speaking out on important public issues, where we’re not revealing any information which is confidential.

CS: Laurie, how does this square with the experiences during the Bush years when the pressure on government scientists was so different?

LW: Well, we think this is very situation-specific. We have a great relationship with our bosses. We don’t feel that that relationship has changed as a result of the change in administration. Really, I think what’s changed is how high-profile our activities have become as the debate has gotten more intense over this issue. And the reason we’re continuing to speak out is we feel this is a critical point of view that’s not otherwise being adequately heard.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel. They are attorneys at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco office. As we stated at the top, their views are not intended to represent the views of the EPA or the Administration—they are speaking out as private citizens. You can find them online at Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, thanks very much for joining us on CounterSpin.

LW: Thank you.

AZ: Thank you for having us.


–Trudy Lieberman, CJR