On Public Option, MSM Gets It Wrong
The American mainstream media is in another snit, having misjudged the prospects for the public option on health care almost as completely as big-time journalists bungled the reporting on the Iraq War and a host of other important stories during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Indeed, if you had listened to all the supposedly knowledgeable journalists covering the health-care debate on Capitol Hill, you might have been shocked to learn Monday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was putting a version of the public option in the bill that he is bringing to the Senate floor.
For instance, CNN’s Dana Bash has told listeners to her “no bias” news network that the only piece of legislation that mattered was the one emerging from the Senate Finance Committee, a position shared by nearly all the other “smart” journalists and pundits. That’s why, they said, they were devoting so much time to covering every twist and turn of the committee’s negotiations.
That devotion wasn’t shaken even by the strange legislative concoction that emerged from the Finance Committee. Since it didn’t include the public option, the insider thinking was that the idea was effectively dead, though a public option was included in the four other committee-approved bills, all three on the House side and one from the Senate Health and Labor Committee.
Still, Bash and her MSM colleagues told us that the Finance Committee bill would be the framework for final congressional action and the other four bills would be mostly cast aside. After all, the Finance Committee bill had the support of one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.
That conventional wisdom remained set in concrete despite many Democratic members of Congress indicating that the public option was alive and well – and despite opinion polls showing that the American people favored a public option by about a 2-to-1 margin.
So, when the MSM's smug certainty went up in smoke on Monday, as Reid announced that he would include a version of the public option with an opt-out provision for states when he takes the legislation to the full Senate, the journalists were in a foul mood.
A new consensus quickly formed that it wasn’t that their reporting had been lousy, or that the public option made a lot of sense, or that the people’s will was finally being respected. It was that Reid had betrayed them by caving in to the left-wing base of the Democratic Party.
Reid’s announcement, declared the Washington Post’s snide columnist Dana Milbank, “was an admission of the formidable power of liberal interest groups. He had been the target of a petition drive and other forms of pressure to bring the public option to the floor.”
A petition drive, no less. Citizens signing a petition urging their elected representatives to take a position favored by a large majority of the American people. How nefarious!
Milbank further presented Reid’s supposed cave-in as a crass political calculation designed to make him “an instant hero on the left.”
“Reid, facing a difficult reelection contest next year at home in Nevada, will need such [liberal activist] groups to bring Democrats to the polls if he is to survive,” Milbank wrote.
Nevertheless, Milbank depicted Reid’s allegedly opportunistic embrace of the public option as foolhardy, claiming that the Senate majority leader lacked the 60 votes needed to stop a Republican filibuster that would doom the bill.
Milbank quoted the perturbed CNN correspondent Dana Bash challenging Reid about whether he had the 60 votes needed for cloture. “Do you feel 100 percent sure right now that you have the 60 votes?” Bash asked.
When Reid responded by saying “my caucus believes strongly there should be health-care reform,” Bash chastised Reid for not answering “particularly on this idea of a public option.”
After Reid turned to another questioner, Bash interrupted, “Senator Reid, with all due respect, is it possible to answer the question on whether or not you have the votes?”
Reid answered, “I believe we clearly will have the support of my caucus to move to this bill and start legislating.”
In his column, Milbank claimed that Reid’s additional response “also didn’t answer the question.”
But what Reid was saying should have been clear to anyone who has followed this important issue. His answer indicated that he believes the Democrats will vote together to stop a Republican filibuster – “to move to this bill and start legislating” – even though some conservative Democrats may vote against portions of the bill when amendments are considered on an up-or-down basis.
As Reid’s news conference was ending, CNN’s Bash was still miffed. “How much of this is about making liberals happy?” she called out as Reid was leaving the podium.
You could read through all of George W. Bush’s press conferences to look for a similarly insulting remark from a mainstream journalist, demanding to know, for instance, whether Bush was invading Iraq to “make the neocons happy.” But you surely wouldn’t find it.
Over the past three decades, the Washington mainstream news media has increasingly tilted right either out of fear of career retribution from right-wing, anti-journalism attack groups or out of shared conservative and neocon ideology. Generally speaking, those journalists, who have played ball with the Right and the neocons, have done well, and those who went against the grain have lost jobs.
Washington's relatively small journalistic community remembers well the fates of honest journalists who produced stories that upset the Republicans and especially the Bush family.
Think, for instance, of the firings of star CBS “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes and three other producers (and the pushing out of anchor Dan Rather) for alleged imprecision in vetting documents used in an otherwise accurate story about George W. Bush ducking his National Guard duty.
Meanwhile, there are almost no career risks in showing disdain for “liberals,” even when that prejudice appears to have contributed to inaccurate reporting on the shape of health reform, one of the biggest legislative battles in recent U.S. history. [For more on the media’s imbalance, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and/or Secrecy & Privilege.]
For months now, the MSM has treated the public option as some loony left-wing idea, when actually the concept had a lot going for it, including the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion that it was the only approach that achieved substantial savings. It also tested well in most opinion polls.
Yet, it still made career sense for congressional correspondents to treat the public option dismissively and side with the so-called moderates in seeking a health-reform law that would compel Americans to buy insurance from private insurers, without a public option – exactly the position favored by the insurance industry. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “US Health Insurers Up the Ante.”]
As CNN's Bash and other correspondents transformed their “public option is dead” thinking into the media’s conventional wisdom, the voices of actual Democratic lawmakers were largely tuned out when they kept insisting that the public option wasn’t dead.
It wasn’t until this past weekend when the mainstream news media began to make an about-face. On Saturday, Oct. 24, the Washington Post’s lead story was entitled “Prognosis improves for public insurance,” noting that its prospects “have gone in a few short weeks from bleak to bright.”
This reversal of fortune got the attention of the Post’s neocon-dominated editorial page which published a double-barrel attack on the public option on Monday. Both editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt and economic writer Robert Samuelson dusted off the insurance industry’s arguments and repackaged them as their own assaults on the public option.
Hiatt deemed the public option “dangerous” because it supposedly would seek to save money for consumers “without controlling costs” through unpopular ideas like taxing the health benefits of Americans or tightening reimbursement rules for Medicare.
However, later in the column, Hiatt went after the public option because it may use “government power to demand lower prices from hospitals and drug companies” and thus “those providers may lower quality or seek to make up the difference from private payers,” leading to a situation where “we could end up with only the public option.”
Curiously, Hiatt then wrote that “single-payer national health insurance may be the best outcome, but we should get there after an honest debate, not through the back door.” Of course, it’s hard to recall the Washington Post editorial page doing much to lead such “an honest debate.”
The internal contradictions of Hiatt’s column suggest that his real goal – as with many other neocons – is simply to see President Barack Obama fail. Their own “back door” strategy appears to be crippling Obama over his top domestic priority and thus hobbling his ability to challenge hawkish neocon positions on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Similarly, Samuelson, a longtime staple of the Post’s editorial page who may rank as one of the nation's dimmest-witted economic writers, reprised the arguments of private health insurers in concluding that “the promise of the public plan is a mirage.”
The mainstream media’s opposition to the public option – as reflected in the reporting from CNN and other major networks as well as the Washington Post’s columns – is another reminder why honest Americans must do whatever they can to build a truly independent media that will resist pressure from the Right and other powerful vested interests.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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