While President Barack Obama pushes an August 7th deadline to get a health care bill – and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid keeps letting Republicans and right-wing Democrats run the timetable – the watchdog group Media Matters has exposed skewed media coverage of the health care debate. In two comprehensive analyses of major newspapers and television news channels, the non-partisan reports prove that setbacks to the “public option” receive disproportionate exposure to stories showing support. The AMA (American Medical Association)’s opposition to a public option, for example, received nearly twice as much exposure as the group’s endorsement of the House Democratic bill that includes a public option. Both studies are re-published beneath the fold, and raise questions about why the traditional media has let the insurance industry’s agenda frame this issue – at a time when polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support a “public option.”

REPORT: On Health Care Reform, Networks Highlight Perceived Setbacks Far More than Progress
By Media Matters -- Released July 22, 2009

In their health care reform coverage, media have repeatedly given considerably more attention to perceived setbacks to progressive reform efforts than to events that signal progress for those efforts. A Media Matters for America analysis of transcripts available in the Nexis database has found that broadcast and cable news featured almost twice as many segments mentioning the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) reported opposition to a public insurance plan as segments mentioning the AMA’s recent announcement that it supported the House Democrats’ health care reform bill, which includes a public plan.

That finding is consistent with an earlier Media Matters study showing that the number of cable news segments in Nexis mentioning an initial Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of an incomplete version of a Senate health committee draft bill was far greater than the number of segments mentioning a later CBO analysis. That later analysis showed that an updated version of the bill would cover more people for less than the earlier scoring had suggested. Media Matters has also documented a pattern in which media suggest that President Obama's reform effort is in serious jeopardy, despite events – including the AMA endorsement and revised CBO score – that indicate reform efforts have made substantial progress.

Following the June 10 publication of a New York Times article reporting that the AMA “will oppose creation of a government-sponsored insurance plan,” broadcast and cable news networks ran a total of 23 segments from June 11 through June 14 that mentioned or discussed the AMA's reported stance, according to a search of transcripts available in the Nexis database. By contrast, following the July 16 announcement by the AMA that it supported passage of the House Democrats' health care reform bill, the networks ran a total of 12 segments from July 16 through July 20 mentioning or discussing the AMA’s endorsement:

The results echo a previous Media Matters study looking at cable news coverage of the CBO scores of the Senate health committee draft bill. The study, which analyzed transcripts available in the Nexis database, found that on June 15 and 16, cable news networks ran at least 15 segments that mentioned a June 15 preliminary analysis by the CBO of part of the bill, frequently highlighting claims that the bill cost too much for the number of Americans it insured. However, from July 2 through July 6, only one cable news segment mentioned that in a July 2 analysis of an updated version of the bill, the CBO concluded that the legislation would cover more of the uninsured for a lower price:

Methodology: Media Matters tallied every segment on ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and NBC available in the Nexis database that featured a mention or discussion of the AMA's reported opposition to the public option – first reported online on June 10 on the New York Times’ website, but appearing in the paper’s print edition on June 11 – from June 11 through June 14. We also tallied every segment from July 16 through July 20 that featured a mention or discussion of the AMA's support, announced July 16, of the House health care reform bill. July 20 was included to compensate for the release first appearing the afternoon of July 16 rather than the morning. The search string “American Medical Association or AMA” was used. Repeat episodes of programs that came up in the search were not included.

REPORT: Cable News Largely Ignores New CBO Health Care Score
By Media Matters -- Released July 9, 2009

Following the June 15 release of a preliminary Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of an incomplete version of the Senate health committee’s draft health reform bill, CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC on June 15 and June 16 featured at least 15 segments discussing the finding, frequently highlighting claims that the bill cost too much for the number of Americans it insured. By contrast, following the July 2 release of CBO’s score of what the committee’s chairman referred to as the “complete bill,” only one segment across the three cable news networks from July 2 through July 6 reported or mentioned that the CBO had come out with a new analysis, according to a search of the Nexis database. The CBO calculated that the updated bill would cover more of the uninsured for a lower cost than it had estimated the earlier version of the bill would.

Media Matters has previously noted that the July 2 editions of the ABC and CBS evening news broadcasts also ignored the new CBO analysis of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee bill even though they reported on the earlier CBO analysis.

According to a Media Matters analysis of cable news programs on June 15 and June 16, Fox News featured seven segments, CNN six segments, and MSNBC two segments that mentioned or discussed the June 15 CBO preliminary analysis. Much of that coverage was marked by suggestions that the score indicated that the bill cost too much and did not insure enough people, without noting that the CBO analysis was of an incomplete version of the HELP committee bill. (In only one segment, on the June 16 edition of MSNBC's The Ed Show, was the CBO analysis discussed specifically to emphasize that it was “an incomplete estimate” and that the “calculations are preliminary.”) For example, on the June 16 edition of Fox News’ The O'Reilly Factor, guest Glenn Beck cited the CBO’s analysis:

BECK: Exactly right. Now, listen, what Obama is doing – and all of the progressives, I mean – we played a segment last night on television. And they all had – they’re all saying this in their little caucuses that this is just the first step to getting rid of the private sector health care. If you look at the CBO numbers this is going to cost us an extra trillion dollars in debt. This is the Congressional Budget Office numbers. Trillion dollars in debt in the next nine years. And it’s only going to leave 39 million people without health care as opposed to 45.

Some segments, such as a June 15 report on CNN’s The Situation Room, noted that CBO had analyzed only a part of the bill, but nonetheless highlighted its findings and suggested it would jeopardize the bill’s passage:

BRIANNA KEILAR (CNN congressional correspondent): Wolf, that’s right. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has taken a look at the Democratic proposal that has come out of Ted Kennedy’s Health Committee to overhaul health care. And here's what they're telling us: that it will cost over $1 trillion over the next 10 years and that over that decade, there will be a net gain of just 16 million more Americans getting health insurance than if there wasn't a health care overhaul. As you can imagine, Republicans are really just slamming this, saying it costs too much and it covers too few. But Democrats, Wolf, are saying it's an incomplete assessment of an incomplete proposal and they're confident they can cover many more Americans once they have a complete plan.

WOLF BLITZER (host): Because if they can’t cover all 46 million uninsured Americans over the next 10 years, that's a setback, because a lot of folks are really assuming – and this could be a wildly optimistic assumption – that over the next 10 years, all Americans, if the president got his way, would have health care – health insurance.


BLITZER: This CBO report, based on what Brianna is telling us, that could be an embarrassment for the White House.

ED HENRY (CNN senior White House correspondent): It could. I mean, the day started out pretty well for the president, because even though there had been all this talk about how the AMA as a group, as an organization, is against some of the plans to reform the system, the fact is the president got a very warm reception from the actual doctors at that convention in Chicago. That’s a good start. But when you look at the report, Brianna is right to focus not just on the cost, but the net gain of how many people will get insurance. Sixteen million more people being insured, while a positive development, far short, as you noted, of the 46 million who are uninsured right now. And so, clearly, Republicans will jump on that, even though it’s just a draft, it’s an early estimate, there’s a lot more work to be done on this legislation. The fact of the matter is, if it’s going to cost this much money and potentially taxes are going to have to be raised to pay for it, and it’s still going to leave 30 million people, potentially, without health insurance, it’s probably going to be an uphill climb for this president.

Further, some segments, while noting that the analysis was preliminary, suggested that an analysis of the complete bill would show a higher price tag. From the June 15 edition of Fox News’ Special Report:

BRET BAIER (host): The Congressional Budget Office analyzed the Kennedy plan as it stands now, and said it would increase deficits by $1 trillion. That’s a number that scares a lot of people.

MORT KONDRACKE (Fox News contributor): Well, actually, I’ll bet you that it’s going to cost more. I mean, I think that they didn’t do a complete analysis of the whole bill.

By contrast, there has been little coverage of the new CBO score since its July 2 release. From July 2 through July 6, only one segment – a brief report on the July 2 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight by guest anchor Kitty Pilgrim – reported that the CBO issued a new estimate of the updated bill:

PILGRIM: Senate Democrats have introduced a revised health care bill. They say it costs less than an earlier proposal. The Congressional Budget Office says the new plan will cost $611 billion over 10 years. The previous plan was estimated at $1 trillion. Now, Senate Democrats are also calling for a government-run insurance option and an annual fee on larger companies that offer coverage to their employees.

On several other occasions – at least one on each network – a segment reported or discussed the lower estimate but did not identify it as the product of a CBO analysis, instead attributing it to Senate Democrats.

According to the CBO’s July 2 score of the HELP bill (released in part on July 1), under the legislation, 21 million fewer Americans would be uninsured in 2019 than under current law. In a July 1 letter to members of the HELP committee, publicly released the following day, HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) wrote that the “Congressional Budget Office has carefully reviewed our complete bill, and we are pleased to report that the CBO has scored it at $611.4 billion over 10 years, with the new coverage provisions scored at $597 billion” – a cost they noted was a “significant reduction from earlier estimates.” The preliminary score of the “complete bill” that the committee released stated that Title I of the bill would increase the deficit by $597 billion over 10 years.

In addition, CBO director Douglas W. Elmendorf explained in a July 2 letter to Kennedy about the score that the public option “did not have a substantial effect on the cost or enrollment projections, largely because the public plan would pay providers of health care at rates comparable to privately negotiated rates – and thus was not projected to have premiums lower than those charged by private insurance plans in the exchanges.”

By contrast, the initial CBO score of an incomplete version of the HELP bill – which Elmendorf made clear did not include a public option or an employer mandate – found that under the legislation, 17 million fewer Americans would be uninsured in 2019 than under current law, at a cost of approximately $1 trillion over 10 years.

Methodology: Media Matters tallied every segment on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC that featured a discussion or mention of the CBO’s preliminary analysis of the HELP committee bill – released during the day on June 15 – from June 15 through June 16. We also tallied every segment that featured discussion of the CBO’s analysis of the “complete bill” – released in part the evening of July 1 – from July 2 through July 6. The search string “CBO or Congressional Budget Office” was used. Using the expanded search string “CBO or Congressional Budget Office or Kennedy or Democrat and health!,” we also tallied segments in which the new CBO estimate was mentioned or discussed but was attributed to Senate Democrats and not the CBO. Only segments that were available on the Nexis database were included.