In the wake of a FAIR Action Alert (4/6/09), Frontline has responded to critics of its documentary Sick Around America, defending the film's focus on mandatory private health insurance and its exclusion of the single-payer option. (Frontline's full response follows.)
In an email response to FAIR (4/7/09), Frontline characterized FAIR's charge that the documentary presented mandatory for-profit healthcare as the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system as "untrue" because the film's narrator acknowledged that "other developed countries bar health insurance companies from making profits on basic care and cap their administrative costs."
While it's true that FAIR's alert had not cited that statement, it did note that this point had been made in the film by a source. As FAIR's Action Alert explained, though, "the only alternative to the current U.S. healthcare system that was examined in any depth in Sick Around America was Massachusetts' system of mandating that people buy insurance from for-profit health insurance companies."
FAIR's alert also pointed out that Sick Around America misrepresented the findings of Frontline's earlier documentary, Sick Around the World (4/15/08). In response to a statement by a spokesperson for health insurance trade group America's Health Insurance Plans that her industry could offer universal coverage if the government mandated all citizens to have insurance, the film's narrator stated, "That's what other developed countries do."
Frontline's editors have denied that this was misleading, emphasizing in a letter responding to an article by Corporate Crime Reporter's Russell Mokhiber (4/2/09) that "America's Health Insurance Plans represents both for-profit and non-profit companies." (The Frontline editors' full response is at the bottom of this email.)
It's true that this industry lobby group represents some non-profit companies, but the narrator's claim is still misleading. Most of the health insurance companies represented by America's Health Insurance Plans are for-profit--while, as FAIR's alert pointed out, no developed country other than the United States relies primarily on a system of for-profit insurance. Frontline's report conveyed the opposite impression.
Frontline's editors have also been dismissing the fallout between Frontline and journalist T. R. Reid. Reid had worked on Sick Around the World and told Mokhiber that he left the production of Sick Around America because he felt that it contradicted the earlier film, which had emphasized that no other countries used for-profit health insurance and had examined the models of Taiwan's and Britain's publicly funded healthcare systems.
The editors stated, "Frontline believes the dispute centered on a conflict between Frontline's journalistic commitment to fair and nuanced reporting and its aversion to policy advocacy and Mr. Reid's commitment to advocacy for specific healthcare policy reforms, for positions he apparently advocates in his forthcoming book."
Misleading the public about global healthcare systems and failing to explore any of the publicly funded alternatives to America's private insurance system, is a strange way indeed of demonstrating commitment to "fair and nuanced reporting."
From: Jessica Smith
Sent: Tuesday, April 07, 2009
To: Jim Naureckas, FAIR
Subject: FRONTLINE responds to "Something is Rotten at PBS"
I'm writing in response to a FAIR Action Alert surrounding the FRONTLINE
documentary "Sick Around America." The initial Action Alert cited Russell
Mokhiber's article from Corporate Crime Reporter "Something is Rotten at
PBS." Mr. Mokhiber's story falsely characterized the film's reporting and
the nature of the disagreement between the series and T.R. Reid.
Attached is FRONTLINE's response to the Mokhiber story. I see that the FAIR
Action Alert has already been amended--and no longer cite's Mr. Mokhiber's
story--but it continues to promote the claim that "Sick Around America"
"...presented mandatory for-profit healthcare as the only alternative to the
current U.S. healthcare system" when this is, in fact, untrue. As you will
read on the attached, the film's narrator explicitly says that, "Other
developed countries bar health insurance companies from making profits on
basic care and cap their administrative costs."
We believe that your readers at FAIR would benefit from hearing from both of
the parties involved, not just Mr. Reid's and Mr. Mokhiber's account. We
also encourage you to watch the film in its entirety on FRONTLINE's Web site
at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/sickaroundamerica/view/ .
Marketing Communications Manager
FRONTLINE’s editors respond to “Something is Rotten at PBS”
April 7, 2009
FRONTLINE takes a strongly different view of the characterization of its editorial disagreement with T.R. Reid as presented by Mr. Reid and Russell Mokhiber in the recent blog entry, “Something is Rotten at PBS” (Counter Punch, April 2, 2009).
That blog entry describes the dispute about FRONTLINE’s “Sick Around America” as a disagreement about the correct health care policy for the United States and says that FRONTLINE “had a point of view — they wanted to keep the for-profit health insurance companies in the game.” Those claims are not true and falsely characterize the reporting in the film.
“Sick Around America,” in fact, made no assertions about the path health care reform should take, but simply reported on the current state of health insurance in the country, focusing primarily on how inadequacies in the current private health insurance system, both for-profit and non-profit companies, were negatively impacting many Americans. Our reporting revealed that both non-profit and for-profit insurance companies were concerned with keeping costs down and maximizing their market share. As a result both write policies that can be changed yearly based on the experience of the particular business in the case of employer-based coverage and both use medical underwriting (in all but five states) to reduce the number of sick or potentially sick individuals they cover. Both employ the practice of rescission, as we reported.
In his blog entry, Mr. Mokhiber makes this erroneous critique of one portion of the film:
During that segment, about halfway through Sick Around America, the moderator introduces Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, the lead health insurance lobby in the United States.
Moderator: Other developed countries guarantee coverage for everyone. We asked Karen Ignagni why it can’t work here.
Karen Ignagni: Well, it would work if we did what other countries do, which is have a mandate that everybody participate. And if everybody is in, it's quite reasonable to ask our industry to do guarantee issue, to get everybody in. So, the answer to your question is we can, and the public here will have to agree to do what the public in other countries have done, which is a consensus that everybody should be in.
Moderator: That's what other developed countries do. They make insurers cover everyone, and they make all citizens buy insurance. And the poor are subsidized.
But the hard reality, as presented by Reid in Sick Around the World, is quite different than Ignagni and the moderator claim.
Other countries do not require citizens buy health insurance from for-profit health insurance companies - the kind that Karen Ignagni represents.
But Mr. Mokhiber made a factual error that seriously undercuts this critique. His argument rests on the assumption that Ms. Ignagni represents only for profit health insurance companies. In fact, her organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans, represents both for-profit and non-profit companies. FRONTLINE rejects Mr. Mokhiber’s assertion that we were misleading viewers in this section of the film.
In fact, in a later section of the film the narrator explicitly says that other developed countries require health insurance companies operate on a non-profit basis:
Narrator: Other developed countries bar health insurance companies from making profits on basic care and cap their administrative costs.
FRONTLINE sees the dispute with Mr. Reid as one not about for-profit vs. non-profit health insurance or health care policy, but instead about journalism. The dispute with Mr. Reid centered on a decision to include a section on the recent attempts by Massachusetts to reform its health care system. Mr. Reid objected to the inclusion of Massachusetts, the only state to require its citizens to purchase health insurance, and to require insurance companies to sell them policies with an adequate standard of coverage.
Reid repeatedly told FRONTLINE that including Massachusetts in the program at all, was to advocate for that kind of reform as opposed to Reid’s preference of a “Medicare for all,” one payer system for the entire country. FRONTLINE’s position was that simply reporting on the state’s plan was not advocacy and, in fact, our reporting would focus not only on the benefits, but also on the problems with the Massachusetts plan. We think any objective viewing of that sequence in “Sick around America” will confirm FRONTLINE’s view that it was a piece of reporting not advocacy.
Editorial disagreements are common in the making of documentary films, but for more than twenty five years, FRONTLINE has been able to find a way to resolve those differences with a wide variety of producing and reporting teams. We were surprised to be unable to find consensus with Mr. Reid and found him resistant to working through the problems with us. He refused to travel to Boston conduct a critical interview with the Massachusetts Secretary of Health or to have requested face-to-face meetings on his editorial differences with the FRONTLINE team. Instead, Mr. Reid demanded that he be completely removed from the film and FRONTLINE reluctantly honored his request.
We would also note that on March 17, just three weeks after he asked to be removed from the film, a Denver magazine reported that T.R. Reid said he was interested it being appointed to a vacant seat in the Colorado House of Representatives, citing that his concerns about health care reform in the U.S. were “enough to push him from the reporting side over to the policy-making side. And he thinks Colorado would be a perfect testing ground.” FRONTLINE’s editorial guidelines explicitly state that “when working on any politically controversial programs the producer should engage in no personal political activities...and should not lobby for or against any specific piece of legislation.”
In the end, FRONTLINE believes the dispute centered on a conflict between FRONTLINE’s journalistic commitment to fair and nuanced reporting and its aversion to policy advocacy and Mr. Reid’s commitment to advocacy for specific health care policy reforms, for positions he apparently advocates in his forthcoming book.
One last point: Mr. Mokhiber writes that Mr. Reid “did the reporting for the film.” In fact, as is true in most FRONTLINE films, virtually all of the detailed reporting for “Sick Around America” was conducted by the film’s producer, Jon Palfreman, and his co-producer, Kate McMahon. Mr. Reid consulted with Mr. Palfreman and conducted some of the interviews. However, Mr. Palfreman conducted many of the other interviews in the film. As is always the case, this was a collaborative journalistic effort. We regret that the collaboration had such an unfortunate conclusion.