The traditional media -- surprise, surprise -- is now trumpeting the argument that the United States cannot “afford” to provide universal health care. The Congressional Budget Office estimate of a $1.6 trillion cost over ten years is said to be a “game changer,” even though the Senators complaining about this expense are backing the wasteful F22 bomber, and eagerly allocated over a trillion dollars for the war in Iraq. In fact, President Obama’s “cuts” to the military budget only slowed projected increases, and the United States still spends more on defense than all of our potential enemies combined. But the media isn’t covering the many Congress members who believe we cannot “afford” an outsized military budget. Nor do we read about Congressional criticism of the billions spent imprisoning non-violent drug offenders, another boondoggle backed by health care opponents. Instead, the traditional media plays corporate America’s game, framing these cost-based arguments as if motivated by the public good, rather than the protection of insurance, medical and pharmaceutical giants.
The Republican Party and their “moderate” Democratic allies have really learned from the late Peanuts cartoonist, Charles Schulz. Just as Schulz showed Charlie Brown trusting Lucy not to remove the football as he approached it, despite Lucy’s consistent pattern of deceit, so does the traditional media continue to ascribe the best of motives to health care opponents -- even though the past fifty years says otherwise.
The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative
The only time Republicans and “moderate” Democrats become obsessive about cost containment is when a progressive piece of federal legislation is at issue. For example, the GOP signed on to the hugely expensive Medicare “reform” under President George W. Bush, which was backed by the same Senators and operatives now claiming we cannot afford universal health care.
Ronald Reagan, the icon of Republican fiscal conservatism prior to entering the White House, produced the biggest budget deficits in the nation’s history up to that time. His “fiscally conservative” backers gleefully spent billions on tax cuts, the military budget, and only raised hackles about cutting spending when they pushed to cut social programs.
Despite Reagan’s budget busting, the traditional media allowed Republicans and self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” to back all of George W. Bush’s tax cuts and spending boondoggles without highlighting this hypocrisy. Today, when Utah Senator Orrin Hatch complains that the cost of health care is unworkable, the media consciously refuses to confront him with his own spending record during both the Reagan and Bush II regimes.
Its obvious that Republicans are happy to spend money for programs and people they support, and do not want to spend on programs and people they oppose. But the traditional media is not satisfied with this analysis, as it appears too self-interested.
So instead the media dignifies longtime critics of universal health care by claiming that they are truly motivated by cost considerations, legitimizing a deception that harms the public good.
Media Plays Groundhog Day
Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, the traditional media covers health care opponents as if they had no past record. For example, consider the American Medical Association (AMA), which opposes the public health option, and whose alleged concerns with cost and patient care dominated the news cycle for an entire day.
The AMA so strongly opposed Medicare that it was the only professional association to endorse Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in 1964. While the AMA’s opposition to Medicare was mentioned in passing, reporters did not ask why this group should be given credibility given its long, anti-reform history.
In fact, while the media keeps insisting that the environment has dramatically shifted since the Clinton health effort failed in 1993-4, it continues to allow politicians to offer negative arguments recycled from that time. So here we have the recycling of nearly fifty years of opposition arguments, and yet the traditional media covers each of their arguments as if they were new.
The Blogosphere Gets It
In contrast to the traditional media, sites like Daily Kos and Media Matters constantly remind us of the Republican and moderate Democrat hypocrisy in claiming to oppose universal health care on the basis of cost. These sites have exposed Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson acknowledging that he opposes the public option because it will reduce expenses, which runs directly counter to the media’s opposition framing.
Imagine if the traditional media challenged Nelson and others to explain why they are complaining about the cost of universal care while opposing reforms necessary to save public money. Nelson apparently remains open to supporting a public option as a result of the controversy following his comments, showing the media’s power to influence politicians simply by reporting their words.
Despite the media framing, polls now show 75% of Americans feel a public option is “extremely or quite important.” This is attributable to both people’s personal experience with the existing system, and the public’s increasing reliance on online news sources.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century