Nov
01
2009

The Money Taboo in Health Reform Coverage

Industry donations to powerful players often go unmentioned

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Free Grunge Textures

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Free Grunge Textures

As powerful lawmakers debate healthcare legislation of enormous potential impact, corporate media have largely failed to explore the problem of health and insurance industries attempting to influence many of these legislators with a flood of campaign contributions.

Despite Deep Throat’s urging journalists to “follow the money,” there’s a longstanding media taboo against discussing the role of campaign contributions in healthcare initiatives (Extra!, 1-2/04). This reluctance is particularly striking this year, when health industry spending on lobbying efforts and political contributions is unprecedented.

In what the Washington Post (7/6/09) referred to as “a record-breaking influence campaign by the healthcare industry,” $1.4 million is spent on lobbying every day. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, lobbying expenditures for all health and insurance sectors total $263 million so far this year, while those sectors have directly donated more than $23 million to federal lawmakers.

Some of the greatest beneficiaries of these donations also happen to be pivotal arbiters in the shaping of healthcare legislation. Yet corporate media have rarely raised the issue of these lawmakers’ potential conflicts of interest.

The healthcare debate has generated a huge amount of media coverage this year. To see how much of that addressed industry influence, Extra! searched the Nexis database with the terms “health care” and “industry” and reviewed stories appearing from June 1-September 1, 2009, in the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time, and on the three nightly network news broadcasts, looking for stories that reported on amounts of health industry money being spent on members of Congress central to healthcare reform.

Of the outlets we surveyed, the newspapers were almost the only places that included such information. The Washington Post published nine articles, the New York Times six. ABC World News ran a single segment (8/14/09) on the matter. Newsweek, Time, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News didn’t address the role of industry spending in any of the stories surveyed.

To be fair, a few reporters did follow Deep Throat’s advice, producing substantive examinations of the role of money in the healthcare debate—notably the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen (e.g., 7/21/09). A handful of articles documented that conflicts of interest in the healthcare debate are not confined to just a few members of Congress, and not limited to campaign contributions. Post reporter Paul Kane (6/13/09) opened a piece with this lead:

Almost 30 key lawmakers helping draft landmark healthcare legislation have financial holdings in the industry, totaling nearly $11 million worth of personal investments in a sector that could be dramatically reshaped by this summer’s debate.

But such reporting, given the volume of healthcare coverage, was scarce. And while occasionally articles generally covering healthcare reform mentioned the role of industry money in passing (e.g., Washington Post, 7/16/09; New York Times, 7/23/09), for the most part questions about conflicts of interest were excluded from the larger healthcare debate.

The Senate Finance Committee’s “Gang of Six” was widely perceived as a critical element of healthcare reform. Wrote the New York Times (7/28/09), “The fate of the healthcare overhaul largely rests on the shoulders of six senators,” three centrist Democrats and three moderate-to-conservative Republicans: Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). As the four other healthcare bills in Congress garnered virtually no Republican support, this committee’s aims of “consensus” and “compromise” won praise from both a corporate media and an administration that favor “bipartisanship,” and uniquely positioned them to determine what a healthcare bill might ultimately look like.

Baucus has received nearly $3.4 million in campaign contributions from health and insurance industries since 2003—more than any other member of Congress. These donations represent about 23 percent of Baucus’ total fundraising (including from his PAC) during that time. This includes “$853,000 from pharmaceutical and health products, $851,000 from health professionals, $467,000 from hospitals and nursing homes, $466,000 from health service and HMO interests, and $784,000 from insurance” (Montana Standard, 6/14/09). Baucus also ranks fourth all-time in financial contributions from pharmaceutical companies (Capital Eye, 6/25/09). A Nexis search for “Max Baucus” among the seven outlets in the survey found mentions in over 100 healthcare-related stories from June 1-September 1, 2009, but Baucus’ financial ties to the healthcare industry came up only six times (Washington Post, 7/6/09, 7/21/09, 7/25/09; New York Times, 6/24/09, 8/19/09; ABC World News, 8/14/09).

Only two of these reports noted that Baucus continued to collect campaign donations from health and insurance industries even as he chaired the Finance Committee’s work on a healthcare reform bill. The July 21 Washington Post noted: “Top health executives and lobbyists continued to flock to the senator’s often extravagant fundraising events in recent months.” Aides to Baucus told the Post that he had refused donations from healthcare PACs after June 1. “But the policy does not apply to lobbyists or corporate executives, who continued to make donations.” The New York Times (6/24/09) reported that Baucus’ fundraising after June 1 also included “industry interests” like “drug companies and insurers.”

More often, though, news accounts portrayed Baucus’ industry-friendly approach to the healthcare issue—including his dismissal of a single-payer approach and his opposition to a public option—as a reflection of his “more cautious approach” (New York Times, 6/16/09), his “long history of collaborating with Republicans” (New York Times, 7/23/09) or his “pursuit of a centrist compromise” (New York Times, 6/8/09). Or he was portrayed as simply bowing to political reality (Washington Post, 8/7/09):

Most Republicans in Congress are dead set against a public option, saying it would drive insurers out of business. Some key centrist Democrats in Congress, notably Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (Mont.), say Democrats must give up on it if they want to win a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate.

Similarly, media generally left unmentioned the degree to which Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has benefited from health industry campaign contributions. Another Nexis search among the seven outlets surveyed shows that although he was mentioned in more than 80 stories related to healthcare from June 1-September 1, 2009, just four noted his industry ties (Washington Post, 7/6/09, 7/21/09, 8/16/09; ABC World News, 8/14/09). Grassley, who once said, “I take pride with being an obstructionist” (Media Matters, 7/6/09), “received more than $2 million from the health and insurance sectors since 2003” (Washington Post, 7/21/09). This translates into 23.5 percent of his total fundraising (including his PAC)—edging out Baucus, who took in more health industry money total, for the highest percentage of any senator (Montana Standard, 6/14/09).

A Washington Post article (8/16/09) relied on “a Democrat who came to one of his Iowa events” to hint at Grassley’s potential conflict of interest: “She said she is wary of her party working too much with a man she thought was ‘in the pockets of the insurance companies’ because Grassley opposed the government insurance option.”

But Post reporter Perry Bacon, Jr., pursued the topic no further, instead characterizing Grassley’s “noncommittal” stance as a strategy of political self-preservation:

Known both in his state and at the Capitol as a savvy politician—he plans to seek a sixth term next year—Grassley is reassuring Republicans that he is one of them, even as he negotiates with Obama on an issue that has stirred deep fears among conservatives.

In a Post article (6/19/09) headlined “Key Republican Senator Is on the Fence Over Health Reform,” reporter Shailagh Murray also explained Grassley’s defiance of Iowa public opinion as a matter of “self-preservation”:

A recent Des Moines Register poll found that 56 percent of Iowa adults support a government option, but Grassley’s self-preservation instincts may be warning him to steer clear....Grassley’s Senate colleagues worry that he has become preoccupied by the distant but unfamiliar threat of a primary challenge in 2010, when he will seek a sixth term.

The piece concluded with the opinion of a political science professor:

He marches to the beat pretty much of his own drummer, and Iowans tend to like that....He’s a guy who tends to think he’s not just there to service the constituency, but to legislate. People like that can get caught in the middle.

In the over 1,000-word piece, Grassley’s generous support from a healthcare industry increasingly opposed to reform efforts was not offered by Murray as a possible explanation for his fence-sitting.

On the rare occasions when lawmakers are confronted about health industry money and how it impacts their decisions, they often insist that contributions don’t influence them one bit. When FAIR associate Sam Husseini (Washington Stakeout, 9/15/09) asked Senator Snowe how her judgment was affected by having the insurers Aetna and New York Life as some of her top contributors, she replied, “I do what’s best for my constituency and the American people, it has nothing to do with the contributions I receive.”

But as David Donnelly, director of Campaign Media Watch, told the Montana Standard (6/14/09):

When you spend so much of your time raising money, as members of Congress do, from those who have a compelling interest in the outcome of legislation, it has to change what you think about it, and the viewpoints you have. It’s just human nature.

The Center for Responsive Politics analyzed political contribution records of members of the Senate Finance Committee after its September 29 vote on two “public option” amendments to its healthcare bill. Amendments by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) were defeated 15-8 and 13-10, with key Democrats such as Baucus and all Republicans voting against them.

CRP determined that these contributions often are indeed a reliable gauge for predicting how one might vote: On the Rockefeller and Schumer amendments, Democrats who voted “no” received an average of nearly half a million dollars more from pharmaceutical and health product company PACs in the last 20 years than Democrats who voted “yes” (Capital Eye, 9/29/09).