Why don’t pro-health care rallies get any coverage?
So there was a big rally in Times Square on Saturday held by supporters of health care reform. I actually saw part of the crowd walking up 5th Avenue, chanting and carrying signs as they made their way to join with the rest of the marchers. With health care reform being the dominant political issue of the moment and given that this was happening in the middle of the world’s media capital, I expected to see at least some front page coverage either in print or online in the New York Times, the New York Daily News or the New York Post.It turns out that I labored under the false assumption that this event would be considered newsworthy. From what I can tell, the only mentions of the rally in any of those publications came in the form of a post to the New York Times City Room blog that went up at 2:37 p.m. on Friday (the day before the event) and a slide show, also from the New York Times on its Prescriptions blog, that appeared after the event.
Estimates of the crowd size vary (the A.P. says up to 1,000 were in attendance) while NY1, a local 24 hour news channel, said “thousands” were there. In any event, this was a sizable rally that also featured speeches by three members of the state’s congressional delegation (Rep. Jerry Nadler, Rep. Yvette Clark and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, all Democrats).
So my simple question is, why didn’t this garner more attention? Yes, it was a Saturday, but one wire service mention, two blog posts and a short segment on a regional cable channel hardly seem representative when we’re deluged with wall to wall coverage of any and every utterance at some of the more contentious town hall meetings happening around the country. For some reason, American media outlets seem to have a curious difficulty doing balanced reporting on big national issues.
The classic example of this is the media coverage in the run up to the Iraq war. Recall that back then, massive anti-war rallies got little play in major media outlets:
A September 28 anti-war rally in London attracts hundreds of thousands of protestors, but merits a one-sentence mention in the New York Times in a story headlined “Blair Is Confident of Tough U.N. Line on Iraqi Weapons.” The Washington Post has two brief references, one to thousands of protestors and one to tens of thousands. As FAIR notes in an action alert the next day (9/30/02), both the Times and the Post were far more interested in a comparably large protest in London against a proposed ban on fox hunting.
Mass protests are held around the world against the Iraq War. Hundreds of thousands turn out in New York City. The mainstream media pay more attention than usual, though some outlets were a little confused about turnout. The ABC News website ran this headline over an Associated Press report: “Thousands Worldwide Protest War in Iraq.” The subhead, right under the headline, was “Hundreds of Thousands Worldwide Open Day of Rallies Against Possible Military Action in Iraq.” The first line of the piece: “Millions of protesters many of them marching in the capitals of America’s traditional allies demonstrated Saturday against possible U.S. plans to attack Iraq.”
Unsurprisingly, coverage of the New York march on Fox News Channel is hostile. One anchor mentions that he “came to work here and looked out the windows and I haven’t seen that many people.” The reporter on the scene, Jonathan Hunt, agrees, saying that it “didn’t seem to me as though they got anywhere near this much touted figure of 100,000.” Hunt refers to the “usual suspects” marching along with the “usual celebrity suspects,” before adding that the march “hasn’t got a lot of attention so far I think because the numbers were far, far below that 100,000.” Another Fox anchor comments later in the day that the network is “always very reluctant to show these pictures of the anti-war protest. It is unrepresentative of sentiment in America.”
The last paragraph is illustrative. Depending on your political persuasion, Fox News either provides a welcome tonic to the “mainstream media” or its presence has led to the creation of a cowed media that trades in false equivalency for fear of being being labeled “liberal”. But what was remarkable about the news coverage at the time the war was being debated is that most news outlets, not just Fox, treated those who opposed going into Iraq as if they were lepers. They were not to be taken seriously and were considered deluded at best and treasonous at worst.
Now, pro-health care reform voices have generally been given a lot more play than anti-war protesters ever were, but still, those who make the most noise get the most coverage, regardless of their numbers. We’re treated to nonsensical claims of “death panels” and shown angry anti-reform protesters shouting at their congressmen and women, but even when thousands march in favor of reform in New York or in Washington, D.C., they’re overlooked.
Part of this, I think has to do with the fact that journalists sometimes don’t actually understand how much power they have. I’m currently reading Farhad Manjoo’s excellent book, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, and in one chapter he deals with the formation of public opinion. He refers to the work of Benjamin Page and Robert Shapiro, two political scientists who examined the issue in the 1980s. What they found through their work was that presidents (and all other politicians), foreign commentators, and activists had little to no impact on how the public understood an issue (indeed, if they had any effect, it was most often negative). So if those people can’t influence the debate, who can?
It turned out, to the considerable surprise of both Page and Shapiro, that journalists (news anchors specifically) and experts had the strongest impact on the way the public thought about an issue. Leading news makers were able to move opinion by as much as four percentage points (experts trailed closely, being able to cause a shift of three points).
That’s a considerable amount of power, so you would think that we would want to have the range of views presented to be as representative as possible. But, again, we’re not getting that. Given the decline in importance of traditional evening broadcast news programs due to the ever expanding universe of information available to us (and the rise of things like talk radio) , I’d venture a guess that experts have become more important, and that’s why you see veteran reporters like James Fallows getting frustrated by the level of publicity that people like Betsy McCaughey are given in regards to the health care debate.
Manjoo makes another related point that needs to be discussed. While discussing the debate around the second Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II), he notes that the experts who helped to eventually kill approval of the treaty were not the people who represented the consensus view. Granted, there’s no consensus view on how to fix our health care system, but there is a consensus that the system should be fixed. Here’s Manjoo:
Experts didn’t kill SALT II; some experts, the ones who’d made it on TV and in the papers, killed SALT II. Many of the weapons theorists who testified in the Senate actually spoke out in favor of the accord. They worried that rejecting SALT II would spark a dangerous arms race These were also retired military men of high rank and arms negotiators who’d long pondered the great strategic dilemmas prompted by nuclear weapons. They were experts. But their names weren’t as well-known as those experts in opposition and the news media, and, in turn, the public, ignored them.
Sound familiar? If you’ve been following the twists and turns of the health care debate closely, then you’ll certainly know that on the anti-reform side of the ledger stands McCaughey, as well as Dick Armey, Sarah Palin and Charles Grassley (among others). On the flip side you have President Obama and…who exactly? The recently deceased Ted Kennedy? Atul Gawande, a surgeon and New Yorker contributor who penned an influential (but probably not widely read) piece about health care reform? The fact that there’s not a ready roster of pro-reform experts to go to for quotes may be a fault of the White House and its outreach efforts, but there are certainly experts who are in favor of reform who should be at least as well-known as McCaughey. One of a journalist’s reporters’ main duties is to find credible experts who can help explain the particulars of an issue to the masses (as an aside, I think that journalists should become experts, but that’s a topic for another time), so who they select to quote can greatly affect the contours of the debate.
The second part of this equation, I think, simply involves the tendency of some journalists to report on a fight because it’s simple. If you go to town hall that features a Democratic (or Republican) congressman getting peppered with angry questions from the crowd, you’ve got a story with defined dimensions and easily cast players. Covering one side of an event just isn’t as interesting because we think we understand their arguments, if not their motivations, in a general sense, so there’s no need to explore it in depth. The sad thing about all of this is there’s clearly a desire among the public to have news stories that actually explain the various aspects of reform, as opposed to simply falling back on horse race style coverage, so digging in and really explaining what each side wants and why would be a good thing.
The media really has to do a better job of truly giving both sides in this debate equal coverage. That doesn’t mean that all claims made by either side need to be given the same weight, mind you, but there’s just no reason other than laziness to neglect covering people who represent one side of the biggest political issue of the day.
Footnote: Paul Krugman is saying similar things about horse race coverage.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias all weigh in on the horse race aspect of political reporting. Klein seems to think that we end up with the reporting that we have because that’s what people want:
This is the market getting more efficient. This is the market learning how to deliver more of what people want (Sarah Palin) and less of what they don’t want (the difficulties of adjusting Medicare payment rates). If policy stories begin swamping servers, people will hire more policy reporters. But there’s not much evidence of that happening. That’s not to say there’s no room for substantive policy coverage. But the more eyeballs matter, the less substantive coverage there’ll be, and I don’t think it’ll be the fault of reporters. A lot of the policy coverage that happens right now exists not because the audience wants it, but because the media decides they need it. As the market becomes competitive, that type of reportorial paternalism will become less and less viable.
Coates builds off that statement in the close of his post:
Tough medicine. It’s always more comforting to think that some all-powerful being (rich white men, the media, big business etc.) has brainwashed “The People.” But when you start delving into this stuff, you realize that often those institutions are performing in the service of actual human beings, many of them not so rich, and not so powerful.
“The People” aren’t noble. And they aren’t evil, either. After dealing with my own writing, with my own family, and with my own person, I find it difficult to muster the energy to master the details of climate change. And I write for a living. But damn if I can barely keep my living room clean.
I thought about this last week while attempting to follow through on a promise to my family, to cook more. I grew up in household where my Dad cooked. My cornbread game is not to be slept on. But cooking right, and cleaning right is hard work, and takes a lot of time. There is a reason people go to McDonald’s every night for dinner. Perhaps the reason isn’t a good one, but it’s not stupid or pathological.
Ditto with political coverage. The shouting heads exist for a reason–we invented them.
Julian Sanchez, guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan, adds his thoughts. I’d like to highlight his kicker as well:
One final and more speculative thought is that the ratio of horse-race to policy coverage may be a rough gauge of our cynicism about the political process. If you think of American democracy as a fundamentally deliberative enterprise—citizens gathering in a great Norman Rockwell painting to reason together about the common good—obviously it’s going to be important for citizens to be well informed about the details of policy so they know who to support, what to say when they write their senators, and so on. If that’s all a lot of crap and there’s really just a big mud wrestling match between interest groups to see who gets to turn the crank on the sausage machine, you may as well forget about the sausage ingredients and watch the bout.