Mar
06
2009

FAIR Study: Media Blackout on Single-Payer Healthcare

Proponents of popular policy shut out of debate

Major newspaper, broadcast and cable stories mentioning healthcare reform in the week leading up to President Barack Obama's March 5 healthcare summit rarely mentioned the idea of a single-payer national health insurance program, according to a new FAIR study. And advocates of such a system--two of whom participated in yesterday's summit--were almost entirely shut out, FAIR found.

Single-payer--a model in which healthcare delivery would remain largely private, but would be paid for by a single federal health insurance fund (much like Medicare provides for seniors, and comparable to Canada's current system)--polls well with the public, who preferred it two-to-one over a privatized system in a recent survey (New York Times/CBS, 1/11-15/09). But a media consumer in the week leading up to the summit was more likely to read about single-payer from the hostile perspective of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer than see an op-ed by a single-payer advocate in a major U.S. newspaper.

Over the past week, hundreds of stories in major newspapers and on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR and PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer mentioned healthcare reform, according to a search of the Nexis database (2/25/09-3/4/09). Yet all but 18 of these stories made no mention of "single-payer" (or synonyms commonly used by its proponents, such as "Medicare for all," or the proposed single-payer bill, H.R. 676), and only five included the views of advocates of single-payer--none of which appeared on television.

Of a total of 10 newspaper columns FAIR found that mentioned single-payer, Krauthammer's syndicated column critical of the concept, published in the Washington Post (2/27/09) and reprinted in four other daily newspapers, accounted for five instances. Only three columns in the study period advocated for a single-payer system (San Diego Union-Tribune, 2/26/09; Boston Globe, 3/1/09; St. Petersburg Times, 3/3/09).

The FAIR study turned up only three mentions of single-payer on the TV outlets surveyed, and two of those references were by TV guests who expressed strong disapproval of it: conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (NewsHour, 2/27/09) and Republican congressman Darrell Issa (MSNBC's Hardball, 2/26/09).

In many newspapers, the only argument in favor of the policy has been made in letters to the editor (Oregonian, 2/28/09; USA Today, 2/26/09; Washington Post, 3/4/09; Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/27/09; Atlanta Journal Constitution, 2/26/09).

In contrast, the terminology of choice for detractors of any greater public-sector role in healthcare--such as "socialized medicine" and "government-run" healthcare--turned up seven times on TV, including once on ABC News's This Week (3/1/09) and five times on CNN. CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has herself adopted this terminology in discussing healthcare reform, stating (CNN Newsroom, 2/26/09) that "if in time, Americans start to think what President Obama is proposing is some kind of government-run health system--a la Canada, a la England--he will get resistance in the same way that Hillary Clinton got resistance when she tried to do tried to do this in the '90s."

Particularly in the absence of actual coverage of single-payer, such rhetoric confuses rather than informs, blurring the differences between the Canadian model of government-administered national health insurance coupled with private healthcare delivery that single-payer proponents advocate, and healthcare systems such as Britain's, in which healthcare (and not just healthcare insurance) is administered by the government.

The views of CNN's senior medical correspondent notwithstanding, opinion polling (e.g., ABC News/Washington Post, 10/9-19/03) suggests that the public would actually favor single-payer.

Though more than 60 lawmakers have co-sponsored H.R. 676, the single-payer bill in Congress, Obama has not expressed support for single-payer; both the idea and its advocates were marginalized in yesterday's healthcare forum. But given the high level of popular support the policy enjoys, that's all the more reason media should include it in the public debate about the future of healthcare.