MediaWatch: June 1989

Vol. Three No. 6

Janet Cooke Award: NBC News: Saluting Socialized Medicine

To help attract viewers to third-ranked NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, news executives exploited concerns about health care to boost their ratings. Beginning May 1, NBC News aired "America's Vital Signs," an "unprecedented month-long report on the nation's health" which would probe "life-and-death questions."

The series did not help NBC Nightly News' ratings, but it did give some insight into how the network would solve what it called "America's severely strained health-care system." The solution, according to reporter Fred Briggs, is a form of socialized health care similar to Canada's. Briggs' May 5 Nightly News report earns the June Janet Cooke Award.

Even before the Briggs report, it was obvious where NBC News was heading. In a pre-report "teaser," anchor Tom Brokaw stated: "And on 'Vital Signs' tonight, Fred Briggs compares American health care with the Canadian system. The differences just across the border are dramatic, cradle to grave."

Introducing the report, Brokaw showed no less enthusiasm: "Throughout this first week on 'America's Vital Signs,' we have seen the way that high medical costs are putting tremendous strain on American patients and American hospitals alike. One factor: insurance. Thirty-seven million Americans have no insurance at all. Many health experts believe that some sort of universal health insurance is the answer. The problem: how to pay for it. Well, you don't have to look far to see one system that seems to work well. NBC's Fred Briggs tonight on the Canadian way."

Briggs spent 90 percent of his report praising the Canadian government health system. He began: "When a baby is born in Canada it's given a birth-right denied to U.S. citizens -- free health care, a lifetime of preventive and corrective medicine without ever getting a bill from a doctor or a hospital."

Admiring the system, he continued: "Remarkably, most procedures cost from one-half to one-sixth of what would be charged in the United States." But do Canadians get lower costs and universal coverage by forfeiting high-tech equipment and quality health care? Briggs did weigh in with Canada's shortcomings: "There is a negative side to such cost control. Some doctors would like to see more high tech diagnostic equipment in hospitals and, above all, more beds. Many patients are put on waiting lists for surgery not considered to be urgent. And a few have died waiting for it." But he stopped there -- with just 25 seconds of the 4:15 report.

As Michael Walker, Executive Director of The Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia, points out in Health Management Quarterly (First Quarter 1989): "Canada's health-care costs may actually be altering the quality of health care provided." Briggs only alluded to problems with supplies of diagnostic equipment, but Walker spells it out. In Seattle, Washington, 17 CAT scanners are functioning. That's more than the whole province of British Columbia, claims Walker. In Vancouver, a city the size of Seattle, there are only seven CAT scanners. In all of Newfoundland, with a population of 570,000, there is only one functioning CAT scanner.

The waiting lists that Briggs' passed over so quickly are indeed frightening. According to Walker's Institute, urgent pap smears in Newfoundland currently take two months, sometimes up to five months. Mammograms take two and one half months; bone scans one and one-half months. Simple neurological procedures take up to five months. Country-wide, says Walker, heart patients wait months for surgery. In British Columbia, there is an average four week waiting time for elective and urgent general surgery.

Market forces ensure timely, quality health care in the United States; given caps on health spending, there seems no end in sight in Canada to waiting lists and inferior treatment. Still, Briggs was unabashedly supportive of the Canadian system in his conclusion: "In Canada, the young can grow old knowing injury or disease will never cripple them financially. Everyone is covered by a system that is more than a safety net, it's a security blanket."

Contacted by MediaWatch, Briggs defended his story as fair and balanced, but revealed he held a strong view: "You're coming from the standpoint that their system is a total failure. I totally disagree with that. I think it's a very successful system. And frankly I think it's a very civilized system."

As for critics of the system, Briggs dismissed Walker, saying: "I don't think he carries very much weight." Briggs denied his conclusion called for a Canadian-style health system for the United States: "I was not endorsing it. I'm telling you how Canadians feel about it. Polls reinforce that." He did concede that those who can afford it come to the U.S. for health care. Perhaps that is more indicative than any statistic, any poll.