Nov 1 1994

Editor’s Note

Who’s to blame for the failure of healthcare reform? Robin Toner, who wrote a post mortem on the debate for the New York Times (9/25/94), likened the situation to Murder on the Orient Express, where every suspect had a hand on the knife: “a divided Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, an overreaching Clinton administration, a fiercely partisan class of Republicans, an insatiable collection of interest groups.”

While naming candidates who do deserve their share of blame, Toner overlooks one of the likeliest suspects: the opinion-shaping media, led by the New York Times.

Before Bill Clinton was even elected, a New York Times editorial (10/10/92) proclaimed that “the debate over health care reform is over.” The Times announced that “managed competition,” a complicated, untested proposal few people had even heard of, was anointed as the new health care system of the United States — and that this “outcome is as wondrous as it is surprising.”

The New York Times seemed serious about ending the debate. A simpler and less expensive reform proposal, the Canadian-style single-payer system, was virtually ignored for months by the Times and many other news outlets. Cynics wondered if this had anything to do with the fact that single-payer would eliminate private health insurance — and that four board members of the Times‘ parent company were also directors of insurance companies.

Even after the blackout on single-payer was somewhat lifted, journalists skirted over the most important fact about the plan: that it could reduce health costs and provide universal coverage at the same time. That information could have cut through the fog of confusion around the issue, generated both by the Clinton administration’s Byzantine managed-competition proposal and by health industry propaganda.

When asked by talk-radio host Jim Hightower (9/13/94) why he didn’t propose a “simple, straightforward” single-payer plan “instead of all this bureaucracy,” Clinton replied that “I thought it would be easier to pass” a bill that left the insurance industry in place. “I guess I was wrong about that,” he added.

Why did it take Hightower (profiled in pages 18-19 of this issue) to ask Clinton such an obvious question? Almost everyone else seemed to take it as a given that single-payer was “politically unfeasible,” and that managed competition was the shrewder way to go. The question now is, are journalists going to acknowledge their mistake? Or are solutions to America’s problems off-limits if they threaten corporate interests?