Apr 1 2010

The Flawed Media Narrative of the Healthcare Debate

When ignoring constituents is ‘pragmatic’

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/tjmwatson

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/tjmwatson

Through all the twists and turns of the healthcare reform debate, one thing has remained constant: Progressive ideas with majority popular support are falsely portrayed as radical, ideological fantasies, while those who oppose them are praised as pragmatic and reasonable.

This trend began when Washington insiders excluded the idea of a single-payer public health insurance program at the beginning of the reform process (Extra!, 6/09). It culminated when the Senate finally passed a bill that, as a result of a few obstructionist senators and the acquiescence of Democratic leaders, was stripped of its most progressive remaining reforms—including the “public option,” a government-run plan that would be offered as an alternative to private insurance (Extra!, 10/09).

The public option had the support of 72 percent of the public (CBS News, 6/19/09) and would save the country billions, according to the Congressional Budget Office (Washington Post, 9/25/09). But when Obama stood by as the provision was dropped from the Senate bill, in an unambiguous victory for health insurance companies (Politico, 12/7/09), the New York Times (12/17/09) had a strange take on the rift it caused between outraged progressive Democrats and Obama: “Now ideology—an uprising on the Democratic left—is smacking the pragmatic president in the face.”

“Pragmatic” is a curious way to describe letting the public option die; how practical is it to make a bill more expensive and less popular? But this framing has been commonplace throughout the debate (FAIR blog, 11/11/09).

When Anna Burger of the Service Employees International Union said the union could support a bill without a public option, Politico (9/24/09) headlined its article “SEIU’s Burger Takes Pragmatic Stance,” praising “Burger’s realpolitik approach.” Jonathan Chait in the New Republic (12/24/09) said left opposition to the Senate’s weakening of the bill was “just noise” from angry liberals who were “retreating from politics into languor, rage and other incarnations of anti-politics” to kill “the greatest social achievement of our time…a centrist compromise of the best variety.” Joe Klein (Time.com, 12/16/09) attacked former top Democrat Howard Dean’s group, Democracy for America, and other “left-bloggers in high dudgeon” over the dropping of the public option, for engaging in “nonsense” that “calls into question the ability of the Democratic Party to govern this country.”

Broadcast media were perhaps even more disdainful of progressive opposition to the Senate’s dismantling of healthcare reform. When “Netroots” bloggers such as Daily Kos’ Markos Moulitsas (12/14/09) and FireDogLake’s Jane Hamsher (11/19/09) opposed the Senate compromise, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (12/17/09) said he was “not sure that they’re regular, grown-up Democrats”:

I think that a lot of those people are troublemakers who love to sit in the backseat and complain. They’re not interested in governing this country. They never ran for office, they’re not interested in working for somebody in public office. They get their giggles from sitting in the backseat and bitching.

Public option supporters were commonly attacked for making the “perfect the enemy of the good” (Politico, 12/14/09) and derailing the entire legislative process by aiming too high. Progressives, however, made countless concessions. Not only was single-payer never considered, but progressives had already seen the public option weakened so much that it would cover only about 4 million people (USA Today, 11/20/09), and included an “opt out” clause for states (Fox News, 10/26/09). The “state innovation” portion of the Senate bill would not eliminate barriers to statewide single-payer programs (FireDogLake, 11/23/09), and anti-choice language was added to both bills (Hill, 11/07/09). The idea that progressives were too greedy, after an endless string of painful concessions, is laughable.

Meanwhile, media portrayed senators like Joe Lieberman, Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson—who successfully killed the public option—as “Democratic moderates who control the balance of power on healthcare legislation” (AP, 10/27/09). Max Baucus, who as chair of the Senate Finance Committee crafted a bill with no public option, was described as having “released the crucial moderate alternative” healthcare bill (L.A. Times, 9/17/09).

It’s unclear how opposing a measure backed by some 86 percent of their party’s voters (and a majority of the public as a whole—Reuters, 11/9-17/09) makes those senators “moderates.” But corporate media’s corporation-friendly framing gives readers the false impression that single-payer healthcare and the public option are impractical ideas that should not be taken seriously, and has greatly hampered prospects for meaningful reform of our healthcare system.