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How the Media has Failed America on Health Reform (Part 1 of 2)

Morgen on October 27, 2009 at 11:48 am

Most casual followers of politics did not pick up on the debate over healthcare reform until some time this past summer. They mostly ignored the umpteen news conferences held by the President since the spring, but they couldn’t miss the broader media coverage of town hall outrage. But for a small number of media experts on health policy, and an only slightly larger number of interested followers, the healthcare debate actually began much earlier. In fact, even prior to this year, when the initial policy formulation and political posturing took place during the Democratic primary campaign.

All three leading Democratic candidates for President – Obama, Clinton, and yes, John Edwards – proposed virtually identical plans for healthcare reform. The only real substantive difference being that the Clinton and Edwards plans included an individual mandate for insurance, whereas Obama’s plan did not. (Obama has since come around to supporting this mandate.) But importantly, all the Democratic plans included the creation of a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers. What is now called, the “public option”.

Although he was destined to be a marginal candidate, Edwards played an important role in the healthcare debate. He was the first candidate to announce the details of his plan, and really put down a marker for liberal ambition on this issue leading into the election. Especially with the inclusion of the public option. And ultimately the other candidates largely followed his blueprint, even if they failed to credit him for his leadership on this issue.

You wouldn’t know it from following the media’s coverage of health reform this year, but Edwards described his plan much differently than the President has. Particularly with regards to the public option. Whereas Obama has consistently emphasized that the public option is only intended to provide more choice and competition in the market, Edwards openly acknowledged that his plan could lead to a single payer system over time. One where there is no choice and competition, only the government.

I posted a video earlier this year to highlight the President’s stark lack of candor relative to Edwards. But the point I want to make here is that the same media experts who were closely following the healthcare discussion during the campaign, are now covering the current debate. And so they are well aware of this difference in positioning between Edwards and Obama. In fact, to say it’s a difference in positioning is a gross understatement, as time and again the President has directly denied that the public option could ever lead to a single payer system. And he’s directly accused opponents who have claimed this of outright lying and spreading “myths”.

I think there are a number of people in the media who are guilty of selective memories in their coverage this year. But just to single out one example, the picture to the right shows Susan Dentzer from PBS (on the left) and Julie RovnerDentzer and Rovner from NPR moderating a healthcare forum with John Edwards on Sept. 24, 2007. During this discussion, Edwards specifically said that under his plan the system could “gravitate” towards single payer over time. Now his positioning was that this would only happen if enough Americans willingly chose the public option. But this is a small distinction, given that the President has repeatedly and directly denied this could happen.

Susan Dentzer is now the Chief Editor of Health Affairs, a leading academic journal on public policy. Although virtually no one in the general public reads it, I credit Health Affairs for some honest coverage on the health reform debate, including the public option. By way of example, this recent blog post by contributor Jeff Goldsmith directly acknowledges that the public option could lead to single payer. And this earlier brief on the public option, does a reasonable job of covering both side of the debate without any obvious bias.

Julie Rovner is still a featured reporter with NPR, and in fact is considered one of the nation’s leading media experts on health policy. By way of contrast, Rovner has not only failed to report the genesis of the public option to her viewers (including the role of John Edwards), but she has actively defended the Administration’s position that any claims about single payer have no basis in fact. In fact she did so on NPR just yesterday, and has repeatedly done so since the debate heated up over the summer.

I emailed Rovner yesterday asking for her comment on this – and guess what? She responded. In part 2 of this article I will post her response, and also highlight how the media as a whole has failed the American people. Here’s a hint: it’s not what you think.

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Category: Health & Education, MSM & Bias |

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