The most concrete takeaway from the healthcare tussle so far is that the media is not a rubber stamp nestled in Obama’s pocket. He is facing a strong headwind now, and while it’s not hostile, it is highly skeptical. Meredith Viera was in the man’s house, on a weekend if I’m not mistaken, prodding him for answers, a far cry from fellow Today “family member” Al Roker’s worshipful howling to him on Inauguration Day.
Emboldened, perhaps by several polls that have indicated lower approval ratings or by the realization that something may actually pass this time, the press is amping up the doubt.
Networks and newspapers of all stripes are mulling over every aspect of every outcome of this debate. They have shown that it is quite easy to poke holes in something that doesn’t exist. Instead of making a target out of the pieces of a specific proposal, every shot has hit this amorphous blob of legislation.
And why shouldn’t it? People fear what they don’t know or don’t understand. Anxiety and uncertainty breed ratings and readers. Think back to how many people watched The Truman Show when it cut the transmission and went to static. They got their best ratings ever!
Conflict sells more than consensus. Riding it for ratings locks in more revenue-generating ad spots for Flomax and Cialis. I suppose that renders us all at the mercy of the IMP lobby (Insurance, Medical, and Pharmaceutical).
Obama has not done himself many favors either: this stuff is tough enough to simplify into a few sentences or condense into a sound bite. The big one coming out of his press conference was about how certain officials “acted stupidly,” and he wasn’t talking about Congressional Republicans. Indeed, Gatesgate was needlessly off-message. (While we’re on it, how can a scandal intersect itself?)
On the TV front, Media Matters has done some quantitative analysis on the coverage, showing that “networks have repeatedly given considerably more attention to perceived setbacks to progressive healthcare reform efforts than to events that signal progress for those efforts.” They cite coverage of the AMA’s recent stances: its opposition to a public insurance plan earned 23 segments, while its support for the House Democrats’ bill received 12 segments. Furthermore, when the Congressional Budget Office reported an initial analysis that the Senate bill would cost too much the major networks and cable outlets ran 15 segments. In contrast, only 1 segment ran two weeks later when an updated version of the same bill yielded a revision from the CBO that the cost would be much lower. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
What about newspapers? As for The New York Times and The Washington Post being unofficial branches of the Administration, these pieces by the Post’s editorial board and one of the Times’ chief news analysts lend credence to them not being yes-men.
The media debate reminds me a bit of The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki’s book from five years ago, which states that aggregating information in groups yields decisions that are often more accurate than would otherwise be made by any single member of the group.
So, any one outlet (from Keith Olbermann to Katie Couric to Sean Hannity) is a poor barometer, but a well-blended media diet can yield a balanced issue metabolism. For instance, an actor (such as Tony Soprano’s nemesis Johnny Sack!) comparing health care reform to Soylent Green on Neil Cavuto’s show may not be apt, but it fits into a larger mosaic. It’s as if for each issue there is a standard deviation from what the media consensus has leveled out at. Recall the overall stark change in treatment the Bush Administration got from Katrina onward, as compared to all that had preceded it.
Now, whether all this media criticism is good or bad for the legislation remains to be seen. But is it swaying the public’s resolve for reform? An assortment of polls suggests barely.
The old saying goes, “Social Security is the third rail of politics.” Right now, healthcare is the car stalled on the tracks as the train’s rolling in. Will it get clear in time?