In every metropolitan region and nationally we have media of record, generally the largest daily newspaper and the most news-oriented radio and TV stations in cities. Nationally, it’s the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the network news and National Public Radio.
These are the media that set the terms of the debate. In that context, consider today’s NPR story by Judy Rovner on the big battle in the gladiatorial arena of ideas: health care reform legislation. Rovner dutifully analyzes four TV commercials for inaccuracies and misleading statements and finds several examples in all four ads. Of course, two ads support the current bill and two are against it. Rovner closes by mentioning two organizations with ads that are completely accurate, the insurance industry trade group AHIP and the consumer group Health Care for America Now. You could not ask for two more mainstream, centrist groups, although each has expressed nominal opposition to the legislation and HCAN is very much for passing the bill.
Rovner is using that old reliable propaganda trick, “conflation” to drive the discussion in a certain direction. What Rovner has done is to equate the two sides by examining their views in terms of the inaccuracies that mar their respective arguments. We get a sense that the two sides are equal because some people on each side has told a few stretchers.
But in fact, the two sides are far from equal. We are in fact seeing a fight between David and Goliath.
Rovner forgets to mention that those against health care reform have spent and are spending literally tens of millions of dollars more on advertising than those in favor of the bill, so that the inaccuracies of the opponents reach more people more times and therefore have a far greater impact. For a full picture of what money can buy when it comes to health care reform, see Michael Tomasky’s article in the current issue of New York Review of Books titled “The Money Fighting Health Care Reform.” FYI, maybe 140,000 people read New York Review of Books.
NPR has trivialized the health care debate by focusing on battle tactics and not the ideas at issue. And because it is an important media leader, a media of record, it has set the tone for the entire discussion: It’s about battle tactics, winning and losing, and not about the future health of our citizens.
This constant focus in the mainstream media on the battle, the race, the contest, instead of on the issues, has several unhealthy effects on the body politic:
- It takes time away from discussing the issues.
- It feeds into the anger that many are feeling for a variety of reasons, because if it’s a battle, we can feel angry at the other side’s dirty pool.
- It tends to equate the sides, thereby discounting the good arguments one side might have, since everything both sides say will be considered as battle rhetoric first and foremost.