The Pew Research Center has released a new report that perfectly illustrates how our broken media operates and why it’s virtually impossible for an American citizen to keep him or herself informed about the substance of government policy. Health care reform was the most covered topic in the media from June 2009 to March 2010, yet the longer the debate went on, the less the public understood the bill being considered. How liberal is the liberal media?! Not very, it turns out.
There are many interesting aspects to this new report, but this chart tells you most of what you need to know.
By far the dominant theme of the media narrative revolved around “politics and strategy,” that is, the day to day horse race coverage that also dominates all modern political campaigns. There is some value to understanding how the bill existed and was changed as it wound its way through the Congress, but that type of coverage falls squarely in the separate realm of “legislative process.” “Politics and strategy” is about buzz words, and how effective they are, and whether this theatrical display or that will resonate with the public, etc.
Analyzing how that coverage was manifested shows just how superficial our media outlets are, and how incapable they are of performing any task save amplifying the latest scandal du jour. I think Igor Volsky at The Wonk Room is correct when he writes:
The media covered the politics of health care — the death panels and ‘government takeover’ memes — because they were more sensationalistic and popular than the boring complexities of how the public option could compete with private plans or whether the individual mandate penalty should be structured as a percentage or a flat fee.
That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Those memes are important and deserve to be covered, but even more important is the need to analyze those memes, and inform your readership when they’re being lied to; that is the basic role of the journalist. Simply repeating focus-grouped buzz words politicians cynically employ to frighten the masses allows charlatans to dictate the terms of the debate, which is exactly what happened. The conclusion the report reaches is that “opponents” of health care reform won the message war:
A study of the concepts and rhetoric that found their way into the media narrative from June 2009 through March 2010 revealed that the opponents’ leading terms appeared almost twice as frequently (about 18,000 times) as the supporters’ top terms (about 11,000 times.) Boiled down to its essence, the opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.
That last sentence speaks volumes: opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms. Our media landscape, at its core, is a verbal battleground in which truth claims aren’t subjected to rigorous fact checking and verification. Objective truth has no place in American journalism, whose practitioners serve as little more than stenographers to the powerful, and whose self-identified role is to repeat claims that “resonate” with the outlet’s readership. Write down what both sides say, and if one side makes their claims louder and more emotionally than the other, well, then they win the war. Does it matter if one side is completely unhinged and delusional? Not in the least. Look at what terms “won” the media war for health care opponents.
In addition to the three memes listed in the chart, the researchers found 2,500 instances of the term “death panels” showing up in the media, which is to say about a 1/3 less than “insuring pre-existing conditions” showed up. That is really quite astounding. On the one hand you have a complete, utter fabrication that gained an incredible amount of traction and in fact dominated the health care debate in the awful month of August; on the other, you have the basic faith that government can and should provide care for its citizens. The gap in coverage between those ideas should be greater than the gap in coverage between my college punk band and Lady Gaga, yet, relatively speaking, my college punk band was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.
As far as the other 3 dominant conservative memes go, “rationing care” is the most obviously obscene. Our current system rations care in the most brutal of ways by denying it to those who need help the most. The idea that we don’t ration care now is insulting and disgusting — ask the people who waited in line for days to receive basic medical care. Or talk to Wendell Potter, the insurance executive turned whistle-blower, about how companies conspired to deny care to those who were previously covered. Literally, every time a right-wing politician uttered the phrase “rationed care,” a journalist should’ve written “Well, here’s the thing about that. We already do.” That’s not bias. That’s reporting.
The “more taxes” and “more government” memes are equally absurd, though it’s less surprising that they took hold, as it would be slightly more difficult to debunk those myths. Providing context and explanation is anathema to attracting eyeballs, apparently. As far as “more taxes” goes, the CBO ruled the bill deficit neutral, and although I never supported the bill whole-heartedly, without any reform costs would have bankrupted the country. Our citizens are getting older, and unless we want to eat them, we need to figure out how to pay for their care. As far as the “more government” meme goes, well, people love Medicare and, when polled, over 50% said the bill should include a public option. It’s very easy to scare people by screaming SOCIALISM — that doesn’t mean that people hate social programs. Again, when people don’t understand the policy, bludgeoning them to death with the blunt instrument of “THE GOVERNMENT’S COMING” might be effective. That’s where, you know, journalists and editors come in to clear things up.
The point here is not to cheer lead for the health care bill. See this fantastic post by FireDogLake’s Jon Walker for the progressive case against it. The point is that criticisms of the bill should be based in fact — not in base appeals to people emotions. If the press abdicates their responsibility, then polls the public, then regurgitates the public’s understandable lack of knowledge, well, that just leaves us all covered in vomit.
This study illustrates as clearly as possible how absurd the myth of the liberal media is. Whether or not editorial boards across the country endorse Democrats or Republicans, the “objective reporting” shapes the narrative, and if that reporting reduces itself to lazily repeating obscene and demonstrably false talking points over and over again like a magical incantation designed to kill the most at risk, well, they need to be treated like the pathetic servants they are. A good journalist performs a function as necessary to society as a fire fighter; a bad journalist is a PR man with a serious case of denial.