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Aug. 31 2009 - 2:16 pm | 136 views | 1 recommendation | 14 comments

Why don’t pro-health care rallies get any coverage?

[Updated]

[Update II]

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.

Another example:

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.

[Update]

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.

[UPDATE II]

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    Here’s something else I want to read a lot more of, and almost never do (why?) — what professional users of this current system most like/dislike and what they most want (if anything) from a new/different one.

    To give only one anecdotal example, I’ve heard that medical specialists typically collect only a percentage (maybe 50%) of what they bill, screwed by HMOs who deny payment or patients who just don’t have it. I know my orthopedic surgeon waited a year (!) to collect fully from my HMO for my May 2008 shoulder repair. What do nurses and GPs think? Surely (?) it isn’t all, always about maintaining a high six-figure income.

    I agree that such media “coverage” is damn lazy and near to useless. Who do these editors think care?

    I hope to get a Canadian doctor, a longtime family friend who’s a rural ER doc, to do a guest blog or Q and A on how life is for him there later this week.

  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Preston,

    Actually in my local paper (Pasadena Star-News) a pro-health care reform event, a town hall meeting actually with Rep. Judy Chu, was indeed on the front page. However, this is the exception of course. Maybe if the demonstrators showed up with guns and screamed incoherent chants it might help. If your job were to sell advertising space (either on paper or on air) how much traffic would you generate from a bunch of peaceful, rational demonstrators? Not much. At the end of the day the commercial news media is about advertising revenues being greater than production costs. A purple faced man spitting saliva as yells about Soviet Fascist medical tyranny brings the traffic that generates profits.

    • collapse expand

      Hi David. If I can jump in, I’d like to say that I think you have a valid point. One interesting phenomenon,though, is that pro-reform groups are starting to use what might be seen as sensational and outlandish efforts to make themselves more visible, too. For example, my post today was about the town hall meeting in a nearby Chicago suburb tonight at which pro-reform protesters will be dressing up like zombies to support universal single-payer coverage.

      Sure, they could protest the same issue without fake blood and ragged costumes, but their tactic — gimmick-y though it may be — has already caught the attention of the local media and I bet you that tomorrow’s headlines will run some mention of the pro-reform zombies in the coverage of the meeting.

      In a sense, it’s disappointing that people have to come up with such outlandish hooks to get eyeballs nowadays, but it’s worth pointing out that both sides are equally capable of playing the same shock-value game to get noticed.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Catlin and David,
    Thanks for your comments! Over on Twitter today, I posted a link to this post and a person responded that there’s no coverage of pro-reform events because nobody supports it and that more people are opposed to health care than are for it. He also added, “thank God cuz I like my HC. And life.”

    I replied that the current system is untenable and my guess is that this is a guy who has good coverage through his job, but I wonder if he understands that a lot of companies want to drop coverage if they can get away with it. Why people don’t understand this, I don’t know.

    As Catlin mentioned, we really aren’t hearing the voices of doctors and other medical professionals (well, we are, but only when they have to refute something like “death panels”). David, I think you’re right in a sense; covering outlandish claims is a lot more interesting than covering people who aren’t making the same kind of overheated arguments.

  4. collapse expand

    This strikes me as just really depressing. Yup, reading policy analysis is not sexy or fun, not like reading another &%$#@@!!ng story about Kate and Jon or whatever crap passes for “popular” news right now. If reporters do not write this and readers do not read this, guess what? The people we elect will make all sorts of decisions affecting all of us and we will have no freaking clue what they’re doing or why or if it’s a smart choice or what the other choices might even have been.

    This relentless dumbing-down and anti-intellectualism shocks me. It shouldn’t, but it does. The race to the bottom, to know the least possible but shout about it in ignorance the loudest makes me want to live in a cave and cover my ears and hum “lalalalalala” since trying to do smart, serious work is — it appears — a waste of time for all concerned. What a crappy, lousy waste of time, skill and potential talent this represents.

  5. collapse expand

    Hey Michael- I’m a Democrat and I care very much that reform has been so poorly handled (my mother died after a 2 year illness when I was 5 and instead of feeling the pain of loss I spent my time worrying about my dad and the bills). I’ve been married to a doctor in the Harvard medical community so I believe I have some balance on this issue. What has happened is that something as complicated as healthcare reform has been pathetically turned into talking points for both sides. If you only read the NY Times and listen exclusively to Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz you’d think the GOP was full of crazy, racist Americans who want to destroy the moral fabric of our country. If, on the other hand you read the NY Post and listen only to Rush & Sean Hannity-you think that Obama et al wants to take away your freedom. So far I’ve only heard John McCain explain it logically. If you watch C-Span hearings and town halls you get to decide yourself without editorialized facts. Both sides would like to change the system- Since the Obama administration has made a private deal (about which they lied) with big pharm- we have taken an important chip off the table- not to mention basic trust from both the right and the left. Since Obama is the guy at the top he is the one who must speak clearly. At the moment there is nothing to sell- and he has been trying to sell it while almost 10% of Americans are unemployed. This is also about fear- You may not have to worry about putting food on your table or sneakers on your kids for school but millions of Americans who have worked hard their entire lives- the ones that we Democrats (Bill Maher et al) call morons- keep this country running. They drive the trains, work in the coal mines, defend our country. If we Dems would stop the good v. evil meme perhaps we could find some common ground. Sarah Palin isn’t quite as dumb as the media made her out to be and Barack Obama is not quite as smart either.
    For the first time in my life (60 years) I am embarrassed by my party. It used to be the party of the working man- aren’t they the ones we think we’re trying to help?
    By the way- there have been plenty of anti-health care rallys that have been quite subdued with folks who actually read the House bill- There are also reports, stories and plenty of photos of pro-health care rallys with really big Organizing for AMerica Obama buses- and lots and lots of heavy handed union types. Not sure where you and Krugman etc are getting your news- maybe you should cast your net wider and check out both sides?

  6. collapse expand

    veritas,
    Thanks for your comments. When I’m talking about the kind of coverage we’re seeing (or not seeing), I’m mainly referring to the major national papers and news networks. I’m certain that there have been reasonable pro and anti-reform town halls and meetings. My point is that the national media only seems to be reflecting the anti side, and that’s not the fault of the protesters! It’s a fault of the media.

    I agree with you that Palin’s probably smarter than she’s being given credit for and that Obama may get too much credit for the same thing, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Palin is far more cynical and manipulative than Obama has been on this issue. You are right to call Obama to the mat for the deal w/the pharmaceutical companies and I think that’s an important story that made a splash for a few days then kind of fell by the wayside.

    But I think we’re going to disagree over the idea that Democrats are not trying to help “the working man”. Does Bill Maher talk down to people? Sure and I don’t like it, but I also don’t consider Bill Maher to be a national spokseman for Democrats. I’m sure that quite a few of those 46 million uninsured are working men and women who have never been able to afford coverage for one reason or another and I think that (some) Republicans are being entirely disingenuous when they start talking about things like “death panels”. I have a pre-exsisting condition and am a currently a student, so myself, along with millions of other Americans, would greatly welcome a series of reforms that wouldn’t deny me care because of something outside of my control.

    It was going to be damn near impossible to reform a system as entrenched as the one we have and have everyone like it. And you are 100% correct that President Obama needs to engage more, be honest and truthful and really set the terms of the debate. But I think that, in the main, the debate has tilted more one way than the other.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for your worthy response- I am quite a big Democratic supporter- at least I was. How I wish it was only Bill Maher creating the divide. All year I have attended Democratic fund raisers and there was not one where the politician-whether it was Al Franken or John Kerry – didn’t refer to “the others” as “the stupid people”. Politicians (probably on both sides but I don’t attend Republican fund raisers) are constantly making rude jokes and basically using Republicans to sell themselves. During the primary I traveled around the country and often sat at night with reporters and chatted about what was happening. It was shocking how little-especially those at the “elite” papers like the NY Times- knew. Whether they are overworked and their blinders were accidental or they were just lazy and started with a viewpoint and furthering it was there only objective- the outcome was the same. I have rarely attended or been a part of anything the press reported accurately- This has always been the case but never as much as the last few years. I know I’m not alone in being disappointed. The political system and the media is broken- both left and right- One not more then the other- Much has to do with ones ideology and whether you believe the ends justifies the means. The Dems may be up now but that pendulum is swinging and ready to hit us in the butt. Just as Ted Kennedy wrote a scathing letter to the MA state legislature to change the law to take away the choice of interim Senator from the governor when it looked like we might lose Kerry and we had a Republican Governor- Kennedy’s (although I don’t personally think he wrote it) recent letter is unbelievably hypocritical asking to change it back so a Dem governor can choose. How does anyone justify that hypocrisy? OY-
      As far as healthcare is concerned- the media story I get (my smartie pants papers & news reporters) is that Republicans are nutty and toting guns- they are scary and they are racist- If only they were smarter and didn’t feel threatened by a black President we would have an intelligent health care bill. Sure there is still some racism-no doubt- but blaming those opposed to the present bills for being bigots is not the answer-in fact I think it one of the main reasons for their anger.

      As for Palin being more manipulative then Obama I think that’s more because of your viewpoint- It is possible that the other side may well have some valid points and we just discount them. Nancy Pelosi calling healthcare protesters unAmerican and suggesting that lots of them are bringing Nazi signs is also a manipulative tactic used to marginalize the opposition. This should not be a partisan issue. The media feeds it but so do the politicians – I have two suggestion for starters- term limits-and get rid of the big money.

      Partisanship is the enemy – it took me many years to get to this point and I’ve never felt freer.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      “I have a pre-exsisting condition and am a currently a student, so myself, along with millions of other Americans, would greatly welcome a series of reforms that wouldn’t deny me care because of something outside of my control.”

      And those reforms will not come from conservative Republicans — they offer no real solutions because they see no real problem. The Republican leadership can’t be taken seriously when their worldview has become so completely detached from reality:

      Sometimes in politics you will have enemies, and they must be democratically defeated. The political system cannot be gummed up by a need to reach out to the maddest people or the greediest constituencies.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    vertias,
    I thought the Pelosi calling folks who are concerned about reform un-American was terrible. But people HAVE been bringing posters of Obama with Hitler mustaches to events, you have Republican legislators (not activists, not concerned citizens) but elected representative saying that they president is a borderline socialist. Both sides are using overheated rhetoric; I’m with you on that. But I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree about who’s taking more liberties. I fully admit to you that my blinders are on, but more so for reform rather than for Democrats, per se.

    I’m very wary of calling opponents of health care reforms racist, unless the facts support it. The real split on health care isn’t even really about Democrat or Republican (I agree this shouldn’t be partisan) but rather, if you believe Matt Bai’s argument in the Sunday NY Times magazine yesterday, it’s more about age. Seniors tend to not support reform whereas younger Americans do.

    You’ll also get no argument from me that the Democrats are about to engaged in some shameless hypocrisy on filling Ted Kennedy’s seat. I don’t approve.

    You mention that you often find Democratic politicians to be a bit condescending, and that can be true, but we were treated to the flip side of that during the election when we were told that the “real America” isn’t made up of people in coastal cities, but of simple, hard-working folks in the heartland. I’ve lived in two big American cities (SF and NYC), but I grew up in a small town in Virginia that has its own NASCAR track. I’m familiar with both and think that there are good Americans all over, so I can tell you that I found those arguments, deployed by conservative politicians, to be incredibly offensive.

    Partisanship, while corrosive,is sadly here to stay I think.

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