The coverage and commentary set off by the release of Sicko, Michael Moore's documentary about the failures of the U.S. healthcare system, was certainly enlightening--as an example of how corporate media continue to twist and restrict the much-needed debate on healthcare reform.
Aside from an occasional concession that 46 million uninsured Americans are indeed problematic, the media's hype-filled conversation avoided the issues, echoes old myths and effectively marginalizes popularly backed proposals for change. One could almost get the sense, watching the reporting on the documentary, that the real problem facing Americans was...Michael Moore.
On ABC's Good Morning America (6/13/07), Chris Cuomo dwelled on how Moore "likes to place blame.... He blames the industry, he blames the government and he blames the media for not asking tough questions." That Cuomo sees being critical of government and big business as an inherently questionable trait would seem to back up Moore's skepticism about journalism.
Fox's Sean Hannity (Hannity's America, 6/17/07) said Moore "will take any measure to glorify and promote himself and his own personal agenda," and has "launched attacks on just about everybody and anything that steps in his path." Hannity later called Moore "a pathetic propagandist" who is "not even any good at it" (Hannity & Colmes, 6/19/07). Hannity's occasional substitute, radio host Curtis Sliwa (5/10/07), even brought up Moore's weight, claiming that he'd believe some of Sicko's accusations if Moore “could lose the 500 pounds."
"Getting people who don't like Moore to give Sicko a chance will be a challenge," USA Today's Anthony Breznican wrote (6/22/07), since "conservatives have used Moore's name to blast dissenters." And the media are helpfully perpetuating the Moore distraction.
When mainstream media bother to address the problems and proposals of the healthcare debate, many regurgitate common myths. Single-payer healthcare, the universal healthcare program proposed in the bill HR 676, is frequently described as "government-run" or "socialized" healthcare or medicine (e.g., USA Today, 6/13/07; CNN, 6/25/07; O'Reilly Factor, 6/27/07; Wall Street Journal, 6/28/07), even though the Canadian-style system involves private doctors, hospitals and other caregivers who are merely paid for by the government.
Still, commentators and pundits continue to scare the public with inaccurate accusations. On CNBC (Kudlow & Co., 6/20/07), right-wing filmmaker Stuart Browning mourned the imaginary loss of personal choice, saying Moore and HR 676 supporters "advocate systems in which we would not be able to spend our own money on our own bodies." Fox's Morton Kondracke (Beltway Boys, 6/24/07) warned of a slippery slope from single-payer care to a socialist dictatorship, saying that "Moore basically wants socialized everything and the movie neglects to tell you that Cuba is a dictatorship and an economic basket case." (That "basket case" grew at a rate of 9.5 percent in 2006, according to the CIA World Factbook.)
In the face of this media demonization, universal healthcare is remarkably popular among the public. In a recent CNN poll (5/4-6/07), 64 percent of respondents agreed that "government should provide a national health insurance program for all Americans, even if this would require higher taxes." And in a recent CBS/New York Times poll (2/23-27/07), 64 percent wanted the federal government to "guarantee health insurance for all" (FAIR Action Alert, 6/25/07).
Despite the poll numbers, journalists still often portray government-funded healthcare as a marginal idea. L.A. Times reporter Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar (6/22/07) even reported that supporting Moore's single-payer plan could be "political poison with the larger electorate" for Democratic presidential candidates. Alonso-Zaldivar's colleague, columnist Ronald Brownstein (whose wife works for John McCain), acknowledged the popularity of a universal healthcare system (7/1/07), but said:
It's true that it's difficult to change a system that creates billions of dollars in profits for a private industry. When you've got corporate media distorting reality on behalf of that industry, that's when it becomes nearly impossible.