Jan 1 2004

Networks Didn’t Follow the Money in Medicare Story

"Campaign contributions" a forbidden term

The nightly network newscasts devoted significant broadcast time to the debate over the restructuring of Medicare. But while some reports described the corporate interests that stood to gain under the plan to offer a prescription drug benefit, few addressed the question of why Congress would pass a law so beneficial to the healthcare industries. In short, network news failed to heed the old advice: Follow the money.

A CBS Evening News report–aired on November 25, after the bill had passed–mentioned that the “biggest corporate winner by far is the drug industry itself, mostly because under the new law Medicare is barred from negotiating drug discounts.” Such admissions were not uncommon. But left unmentioned was the fact that pharmaceutical companies, as well as health insurers and HMOs, are big contributors to the same politicians who cast the votes on this legislation.

The pharmaceutical industry gave $21.7 million to Republicans and $7.6 million to Democrats in the last election cycle alone, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The insurance sector gave $11.7 million to Democrats and $25.9 million to Republicans during the same time frame.

And those contributions, the CRP has found, were a fairly reliable indicator of how a given member of Congress voted on the bill: House Republicans who supported the bill got more than three times as much pharmaceutical money as the minority of Republican opponents; the handful of Democratic supporters in the House received more than twice the health insurance contributions taken in by Democrats who voted no (Capital Eye, 11/24/03).

The simple fact that the “winners” in the Medicare debate were also big political contributors was mentioned in only one report in the weeks before the bill passed, according to a search of the Nexis database. This was a November 23 segment on ABC‘s World News Tonight. Correspondent Jake Tapper noted that “buried in the energy and Medicare bills are goodies for many corporations,” and he referred to a report by the group Common Cause describing “Bush policies that directly benefit contributors’ companies. The Medicare bill should boost earnings for Pfizer, the Federation of American Hospitals and Johnson & Johnson.” Tapper also raised another important point: “Campaign contributors not only sometimes benefit from laws their favored politicians support, they also often help write them, as they did with these two bills.”

In another ABC World News Tonight report (10/19/03), on the health insurance industry, ABC medical correspondent Tim Johnson noted, “With tremendous clout in Washington–the industry spent more than $37 million on political donations last year–reform has been slow in coming.”

Unfortunately, reporting that tied the Medicare bill’s benefits for the healthcare industries with those industries’ generosity to politicians was extremely rare. Back in July, CBS Evening News aired a report on the Medicare issue by Joie Chen (7/25/03) that made the connection:

Chen: Lawmakers were blunt about the influence drug companies have on the debate.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D.-Ill.): There’s a pharmaceutical lobbyist and a half for every member of Congress. They have spent over $100 million in contributions, entertainment and lobbying expenses all focused on us.

Chen: And expect that influence to increase this fall as the House and Senate try to work out their differences over how to fix Medicare and make prescription drugs more affordable for seniors.

But whether that influence increased or not, CBS Evening News never again mentioned pharmaceutical or other healthcare industry contributions in its coverage of the Medicare debate.

NBC Nightly News, meanwhile, never mentioned the Medicare bill and healthcare industry campaign contributions in the same story all year. When NBC analyzed the politics of the Medicare debate (11/24/03), reporter David Gregory claimed that “the president knew keeping a campaign promise on prescription drugs could be a key to his re-election,” explaining that “it’s older Americans who will make up a crucial voting bloc next year, an estimated one out of every four votes.” Bush, according to Gregory, pushed the Medicare bill because he calculated that “this campaign promise could result in political gold.”

The actual political gold that Bush and the legislators who voted for the bill will receive–in the form of millions of dollars worth of campaign contributions–was apparently not worth reporting.