In This Issue
On Health, Network Morning Shows Slant Left in Picking Guests, slightly Right in Questions; NewsBites: Watching the Ad Watch; Revolving Door: CNBC's New Chief; Reporters Heap Heaving Helpings of Mush, Ignore Substanse of Testimony; 'Kiss Ass, Move with the Mass'; Wallace on U.N. Waste; What a Difference a Producer Makes; Janet Cooke Award: NBC's Jim Maceda Attacks Conservative "Myths" About Health Care
On Health, Network Morning Shows Slant Left in Picking Guests, slightly Right in Questions
Good Morning, Liberals
When Republicans controlled the White House, liberal critics complained the GOP dominated the networks' interviews. Now that the Democrats control the White House, no one can argue there's a conservative slant.
MediaWatch analysts watched all interviews on health care reform on ABC's Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and NBC's Today from November 8, 1992, the day after the election, through the end of September of this year. Guests were classified as "left" if they supported the Clinton plan or an even stronger government role; or classified as "right" if they wanted less government than the Clinton plan.
In 51 segments, 45 interviewees (62 percent) came from the left; 19 (26 percent) came from the right. Another nine (12 percent) represented medical industries -- doctors (6), drug companies (1), insurance companies (1), and hospitals (1).
MediaWatch analysts went further, looking at the questions the networks asked. Questions were categorized as informational, from the left or from the right. Of the 356 questions asked, 228 were informational, 85 came from the right-leaning agenda, and 43 came from the left. If morning show hosts were playing the role of devil's advocates, left-leaning guests should be asked a fair number of right-leaning questions. But hosts didn't become truly adversarial, asking more right-leaning questions than left, until the Clinton plan emerged in September.
Guests. The study period is split into two parts: the 21 segments from November to August, and the 30 interviews in September, as media interest picked up in the release of the Clinton plan. Liberal bias reigned in the first part: the guest lists slanted dramatically (21 left, 6 right, 5 industry). Only in September did the overall guest list grow more balanced (24 left, 13 right, 4 industry).
Among those interviewed on the "right" side were Sens. John Chafee, Arlen Specter, and Dave Durenberger, all of whom have been receptive to the Clinton plan. Stephen Elmont of the National Restaurant Association made the "right" list, even though he told the NBC audience that he was an active Democrat and Clinton fundraiser, because he opposed employer mandates.
Guests on the left were also sometimes critical of the Clinton plan, as too conservative. NBC brought on Dr. David Himmelstein twice and ABC invited Dr. Steffie Woolhandler. The two doctors head Physicians for a National Health Program, a group favoring a Canadian-style single payer system that would abolish insurance companies. CBS invited single-payer advocate Sara Nichols of Public Citizen. By contrast, the networks never interviewed sponsors of a House Republican medical-savings-account plan or anyone who disagreed with the notion of government-enforced universal coverage.
The three networks differed not only in the balance of their guests, but in the amount of time they devoted to the health issue. ABC did the fewest interviews (7), but had the most politically balanced guest list (5 left, 4 right, no one from industry). CBS came in second in segments (18), but first in guest imbalance (15 left, only 4 right, and 4 from industry). NBC did the most interviews (26), and had much more balance in September (13 left, 8 right, 3 industry) than from November to August (12 left, 2 right, 2 industry).
Questions. Analysts categorized questions as informational, coming from the left (promoting the Clinton or single-payer plans, or skeptical of the private sector) or the right (promoting the private sector, questioning the effects of more government).
To illustrate, "Why managed competition?" is an informational question. From the left, take Bryant Gumbel on March 31: "In the greedy excesses of the Reagan years, the mean income of the average physician almost doubled, from $88,000 to $170,000. Was that warranted?" From the right, take Joan Lunden's September 24 question to Mrs. Clinton: "Some say this will create a huge bureaucracy. How do you respond to that?"
Again, the study period splits into two parts. From November to August, not only did the list of guests slant left, but the agenda of questions was evenly divided (25 left, 25 right, 95 informational). In one of the most slanted interviews, NBC's Scott Simon asked liberal professor Ted Marmor mostly liberal questions last December 27: "Should we have the nerve...to say that maybe we have to take private industry out of this. Maybe it has to be a government-assumed right?"
In September, the questions focused more on the Clinton plan
and its possible flaws (57 right, 17 left, 130
informational).The networks were especially concerned about patients
being able to choose doctors, the subject of 22 questions. Hosts
also asked about rationing (7), higher taxes (6), and more
Analysts made one exception in the right-leaning category: questions critical of privately-run health maintenance organizations (or HMOs) were sometimes categorized as right- leaning, since the Clinton plan envisions using government to force more Americans into HMOs. On September 23, ABC's Dr. Tim Johnson asked Dr. C. Everett Koop: "We know there will be more emphasis on HMOs, where their doctor may not be there. What's going to happen there?"
The networks rarely asked questions on side issues that could cause trouble for Clinton. Of 356 questions, only five focused on government-funded abortions, four by CBS co-host Paula Zahn, who told Hillary Clinton "some hard-core groups [are] out there saying they're going to derail this plan over the sole issue of abortion." Only two asked about the plan's malpractice provisions, and none mentioned health care for illegal aliens. As the debate rages on , the networks should be pressed into covering these subjects as well.
NewsBites: Watching the Ad Watch
Watching the Ad Watch. CBS This Morning reporter Hattie Kauffman took a less than objective peek at the crop of health care ads to uncover what special interests were producing them. In her September 22 piece, she judged the accuracy of the ads with Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack.
He criticized an ad by the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices for concealment: "It's the Health Insurance Association of America's money that's behind that so-called coalition. That, I think, is unethical to the worst degree." (The HIAA is also listed at the ad's end.) But before allowing Pollack to pass judgment on "unethical" concealment, Kauffman should have told viewers about his outfit, which she called "a health-care consumer group." The February 6 Washington Post reported that at Clinton's request, Families USA "hired eight field representatives to wage a health care reform campaign of its own in 60 `swing' congressional districts where support for Clinton's general themes...is not considered firm." Question: how fair is the debate when the judge is on one of the teams?
Altering Armey. Hillary Clinton's performance in front of congressional committees drew rave reviews from virtually every reporter, but one got so carried away that she lost touch with reality. On September 29, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) promised the First Lady "to make this debate as exciting as possible." Here's how Washington Post reporter Dana Priest recounted the subsequent exchange: "`I'm sure you will do that, you and Dr. Kevorkian,' Clinton shot back, in a sharp reference to Armey's recent comment comparing the administration plan to a `Dr. Kevorkian prescription' that would kill American jobs....`I have been told about your charm and wit,' Armey said. `The reports on your charm are overstated, and the reports of your wit are understated.' His face bright red, Armey laughed and shook his head. Then he left the room."
The only problem: As any C-SPAN viewer knows, a far from flustered Armey did not leave. He then asked a question and listened to the answer.
Reinventing Gore. When Bill Clinton and Al Gore announced their National Performance Review (NPR) plan on September 7, reporters trumpeted a shift to the right. The Washington Post headlined its story: "Post-Vacation Clinton Swims Toward Mainstream." The Boston Globe headline read "With Plan to Shrink Government, Clinton Nods to the Right." The Globe's Michael Kranish wrote: "The plan is expected to include efforts to merge government agencies, streamline bureaucracies, reduce regulation and eliminate wasteful programs...In contrast to Clinton's controversial plans on gays in the military and tax increases, this plan sounds as Republican and conservative as anything Clinton has proposed."
But the reporters must not have looked very closely at the plan. None mentioned aspects that are anything but conservative- sounding: Of the $108 billion Gore said he would squeeze out of government, The Washington Times reported only $36.4 billion would come from actual cuts, while $8.3 billion of "savings" are generated by increased taxes. The plan also fails to touch programs at the top of any conservative list, such as Amtrak.
A Citizens for a Sound Economy analysis by Dan Murphy found the Gore plan softens the current practice of requiring the Office of Management and Budget to perform a cost-benefit analysis of all new regulations to "only significant regulations." Reporters also ignored Al Gore's record of supporting ever-larger government programs. The National Taxpayers Union rated Gore the biggest spender in the Senate in 1992, the third time in four years.
Killer Kids. The recent tourist murders in Florida prompted the media to focus on juvenile crime. Without any attribution, on the September 8 Now Tom Brokaw charged: "In every community in this country, juvenile violence is on the rise. A recent survey found that one in ten kids has been shot at during the past year." The Census Bureau counts 70 million kids, so 7 million youngsters were shot at during the last year? Now that's news.
Others see the problem as a lack of gun control rather than evil teenage behavior. Dan Rather overstated the novelty of one solution on the September 13 CBS Evening News. "In Denver, Colorado's Governor gave final approval to the first state law in the nation that cracks down on handguns for juveniles. Passed by a special session of the legislature, this Colorado law makes it illegal in almost all cases for people 18 or younger to carry handguns." But Washington, D.C. and New York City have had a total ban on gun possession for everyone, not just juveniles, for years. And with the homicide rate growing every year, the ban hardly decreased the crime rate in those cities.
Career Criminals? Unable to resist the temptation to compare the Rodney King case with the Reginald Denny case, ABC's Brian Rooney explained on the September 28 World News Tonight: "[Damian] Williams and [Henry] Watson face the possibility of life in prison while just yesterday, the police convicted of violating Rodney King's civil rights won a two week delay to appeal their case before going to jail. What troubles some people is that the two white officers have been treated as though their crime was just a mistake they might never repeat, while the two black defendants have been prosecuted as though they are career criminals who might be dangerous the rest of their lives." Rooney repeated himself on the next day's Good Morning America: "Williams and Watson are being prosecuted like career criminals while the police officers...have been treated like two honest men who made a mistake."
Treated like career criminals? Of course. Rooney ignored police records documenting the criminal pasts of Williams and Watson. An avowed gang member, Williams, whose confession to the Denny beating was not allowed in court, has an arrest record that includes charges of battery, robbery and hit-and-run. Watson boasts a record that includes an arrest for carrying a concealed weapon and involvement in an armored car hold-up.
Aspin Roasts Weiner. Relying entirely on four anonymous sources, The New York Times ran a front page story on August 18 by Tim Weiner alleging "Officials in the `Star Wars' project rigged a crucial 1984 test and faked other data in a program of deception that misled Congress as well as the intended target, the Soviet Union." One of Weiner's anonymous sources told him a beacon had been installed in the target missile to guide the interceptor missile to the point of impact, creating the impression of a successful test. Taking Weiner's report as gospel, a Times editorial the following day praised Weiner for exposing "the Star Wars hoax." The story also spurred reports on ABC, NBC and CNN on the night of August 18, as well as stories in Time ("The Ploy That Fell to Earth") and Newsweek ("Reagan's Cold War `Sting'?").
On September 9, however, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin reported the findings of a Pentagon inquiry into the accusation. After rebutting the specific accusations, Aspin, who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee at the time of the test and no SDI cheerleader, explained: "Our conclusion, then, is that the experiment was not rigged and, in fact, could not be rigged by the presence of the radar beacon." The Times reported this rebuttal on page B-9 of the Metro section. NBC Nightly News reported Aspin's finding, but not ABC, CNN, Time or Newsweek.
Funds Untied. "The U.S. spends significantly less on the arts than many other Western nations," claimed CNN anchor Linden Soles on CNN's September 2 World News. Reporter Cynthia Tornquist began her story with figures from the National Endowment for the Arts: "The United States falls short when it comes to public funding for the arts...Sweden spends 46 dollars per capita on the arts, Germany puts out 39 dollars...However, the United States spends just 68 cents per person." Tornquist broadcast a series of appeals for public funding from NEA acting Deputy Chairman A.B. Spellman, playwright Terrence McNally, and arts advocate Julian Lowe.
Despite the advocacy for public financing, Tornquist paradoxically concluded: "According to the National Academy for the Arts, the arts has become a nine billion dollar industry in the United States. Those who support the arts suggest that with proper public funding, the arts can provide the public with economic as well as cultural rewards." She might have been referring to the 1992 Giving USA report on philanthropy, which reported that private donations to the arts amounted to $9.32 billion, or more than 50 times annual NEA spending. It's the highest spending on arts in the world. But Tornquist ignored that.
Calling Off The Dogs. In the aftermath of the 1992 campaign, George Bush fired State Department appointee Elizabeth Tamposi for searching the passport files of Bill Clinton and his mother, Virginia Kelley. The three network evening shows, CNN's World News, and PBS' MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour featured Tamposigate no less than 28 times, eight times as the lead story, with 21 stories during the 16-day period from November 10-25. But TV coverage of Clinton-era scandals remains rare.
A September 3 Washington Post front page story revealed an investigation by the State Department's Inspector General into allegations that the Clinton State Department searched the records of 160 senior personnel appointees, including the personnel file of Elizabeth Tamposi. How many times did these same newscasts, during a similar 16-day period, cover this scandal? Zero. Only CNN's Inside Politics felt it merited mention, mentioning it on September 3 and again on September 10.
The networks also failed to cover the story that former Clinton chief of staff and campaign aide Betsey Wright, now a lobbyist, arranged for a White House meeting for the American Forest and Paper Association. This meeting resulted in the watering down of a proposed Clinton directive that would have required the federal government to buy paper containing 25 percent recycled materials. This is the sort of "insider lobbying" that Clinton pledged to end, but the network news hounds don't have the nose for hypocrisy that they used to.
Gannett's Semi-Free Press. A recent incident in Vermont shows how political correctness leads to censorship. A late August Albany Times-Union story detailed how the Gannett-owned Burlington Free Press fired reporter Paul Teetor after he angered black activists by reporting that a white woman was not allowed to speak and escorted out of a community meeting on racial issues. What Teetor considered a carefully worded neutral report incensed local black activists. Claiming the story should have focused exclusively on minority complaints, they demanded the paper fire Teetor and run a front page correction of the "racist" story. The Free Press editors complied.
Gannett has a standing policy of politically correct news coverage. Gannett Vice President for News Phil Currie told the Times-Union about the chain's "All-American Contest" that encourages its papers to hire minorities and depict them in constructive ways. "Twice a year, he said, each paper in the chain is evaluated and receives a score between 1 and 10. Scores in the contests, he said, could be a factor in considering which editors are promoted." Therefore, editors are discouraged from running anything that reinforce "black stereotypes." How has Teetor's firing and Gannett's policy affected the Free Press? The Times-Union reported that stories dealing with racial issues are reviewed by top editors and "anything that minorities might possibly consider offensive is cut."
Revolving Door: CNBC's New Chief
NBC President Robert Wright tapped Republican political consultant Roger Ailes to take the presidency of CNBC, the NBC-owned cable channel.
The Senior Media Adviser during Bush's 1988 campaign, Ailes produced many of Bush's TV ads. Outside of politics Ailes has a lengthy list of television credits, from Executive Producer of the old Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s to helping Paramount launch the Maury Povich Show in 1992. At NBC, Ailes will also oversee the 1994 creation of America's Talking, an all-talk show cable channel.
Wright's decision disturbed Jon Margolis, chief national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1973 to 1988. In a September 7 column he complained: "Ailes is a smart person with extensive television experience. He is also an ideologue. Years ago, it was considered acceptable to have ideologues run news organizations. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, was run by one. Now, it is not considered acceptable, at least not by honest people in the news business."
Margolis failed to mention that Ailes reports to Tom Rogers, President of NBC Cable since 1988. From 1981 to 1986 Rogers worked for then-U.S. Rep. Tim Wirth, a liberal Colorado Democrat. MediaWatch asked Margolis why he has not criticized any liberals who have accepted media positions. Margolis conceded that "your point is well taken, what's sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander," but insisted that a statute of limitations should apply to those out of politics for many years, such as NBC's May appointment of a former aide to George McGovern as Executive Producer of NBC Nightly News.
Offering an example of the kind of ideological job switching that's "questionable for the health of the country," Margolis called NBC's hiring of Tim Russert (now VP and Washington Bureau Chief) directly from Mario Cuomo's office "a questionable decision." Margolis explained that he highlighted Ailes because "people are now more aware of the impact" of the revolving door between media and politics.
Bushie to CBS
In 1988 Ceci Cole McInturff directed voter outreach for the George Bush presidential campaign, a campaign highlighted by Bush's CBS Evening News confrontation with Dan Rather. In September she began lobbying on behalf of the financial interests of CBS Inc. as Vice President for federal policy. McInturff served from 1985 to 1987 as Special Assistant to the President for political and intergovernmental affairs.
Former New York Times reporter Christopher Lydon lost his bid to become a Democratic Mayor of Boston, placing sixth in the September 14 primary. Lydon was a news anchor on Boston's PBS affiliate for 14 years after leaving the Times Washington bureau in 1977. The Boston Globe reported that Lydon's public safety plan called for "a ban on the sale, manufacture and possession of handguns." He asserted that "it is absurd to think that the country's mayors and police chiefs, backed by millions of impassioned citizens, cannot mount a lobby in Washington much more powerful that the National Rifle Association and its lobbyists." Among contributions to his campaign: $500 from former Newsweek reporter and current New Yorker Editor Hendrik Hertzberg.
Reporters Heap Heaving Helpings of Mush, Ignore Substanse of Testimony
Hurrays for Hillary on the Hill
The unveiling of Hillary Rodham Clinton's health plan and her testimony before Congress unleashed a chorus of uncritical raves for her effort to place one-seventh of the economy under government control.
ABC named the First Lady "Person of the Week" on September 24. Peter Jennings gushed: "This particular individual had come an awfully long way in the last year or so. And then we thought -- no, maybe it's the country which has come a long way." He explained "Mrs. Clinton's passion for health care is undeniably deep. She worked tirelessly for healthier children in Arkansas," though the American Public Health Association ranked Arkansas 46th in "adequate prenatal care."
Nevertheless, Jennings referred to her as "Hillary, the problem- solver" and added she "has been positively liberated" by her experience. ABC aired five soundbites -- all positive. Jennings ended by noting her 1969 commencement address: "She said in that speech the challenge was to practice politics as the art of making possible what appears to be impossible. In attempting to completely revolutionize the American health care system, she and her husband are attempting just that."
The tendency to report on Hillary's personality or her sales job overshadowed the plan's substance. Bob Schieffer described the scene on the September 28 CBS Evening News: "Seldom referring to notes, she argued that much of the system is broken and must be fixed. There seemed no detail she did not know, no criticism she had not considered...It was a boffo performance. Republicans were impressed, Democrats just loved it."
On the September 29 Inside Politics, CNN reporter Candy Crowley found "more rave reviews for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who put in yet another virtuoso performance." While acknowledging the testimony was "an exchange of philosophical views and some broad generalities," Crowley crowed "this is a lady who knows her stuff, and how to use it...it has all worked very well. Pro and con on the issue, lawmakers seem unanimously ga-ga."
Other reporters were even less concerned with the details. On the October 1 C-SPAN Journalists' Roundtable, The Boston Globe's Peter Gosselin recalled how a teapot sat at her table. "She had tea, particularly in the afternoon, while she was testifying...It was, again, this nice touch. `I'm just, I'm just sitting here having tea, and we're just talking about health care.'"
A triumph of image over substance? No, he maintained: "I was terribly impressed that she was able to marry some of the traditional images of the First Lady with the policy technocrat that she really is."
'Kiss Ass, Move with the Mass'
Rather's `Powder Puff' Hypocrisy
The night the President unveiled his health reform plan, Dan Rather anchored a 48 Hours special, with an interview of Hillary Clinton as the main attraction. Rather tossed the First Lady slow-pitch softballs like: "When you walked in, it was pretty clear you were excited, but also a little nervous. Am I right about that?" And: "You've been working hard already to introduce this plan to people, sell this plan to people. Are you having fun with this or is it all just hard work? It looks to be very hard work."
Rather's questions were sometimes thinly disguised tributes: "I don't know of anybody, friend or foe, who isn't impressed by your grasp of the details of this plan. I'm not surprised because you have been working on it so long and listened to so many people. Is it possible, and I'm asking for your candid opinion, that when this gets through, whether it passes or not, that we will have reached a point when a First Lady, any First Lady, can be judged on the quality of her work?"
Instead of asking tough original questions about the vague details that were released, Rather reiterated the points of the plan as questions: "Let me run down a checklist....just give me a yes or no answer. Will every resident of the United States be covered under this?...Will this entail any major increase in taxes?...Will this help reduce the deficit, perhaps by as much as $91 billion?" Rather ended his interview with a shameless plug: "Are you prepared to pay the ultimate price and go on David Letterman?"
Just one week later, Rather lambasted the press in a September 29 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association convention in Miami. Rather, who either has a short memory or a twin, stated: "They've got us putting more and more fuzz and wuzz on the air." He went on to complain that reporters "Do powder puff, not probing interviews. Stay away from controversial subjects. Kiss ass, move with the mass and for heaven and ratings' sake don't make anybody mad -- certainly not anybody you're covering, and especially not the Mayor, the Governor, the Senator, the President or the Vice-President or anybody in a position of power. Make nice, not news."
Wallace on U.N. Waste
Mike Wallace opened the door of the United Nations on the September 19 60 Minutes and found horrific waste. "Many in a position to know charge that disturbing amounts from that U.N. budget are disappearing due to mismanagement or corruption. So while we look to the U.N. as the world's policeman, its ability to police itself is quite another matter."
Wallace examined one confidential audit on the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Cambodia: "Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted or ripped off due to the incompetence or outright thievery of U.N. officials or contractors." He then catalogued instances of U.N. fraud: phantom payrolls, contracts awarded to a small number of preferred companies even though their bids were higher than others, payment for work that was never done, construction of huge conference centers, and sweetened consulting contracts for former U.N. employees.
Wallace diagnosed the problem as a lack of accountability built into the U.N. system: 184 countries make up the General Assembly which appropriates money to projects, "and while they get to run up the bills, just 13 of the more prosperous nations have to foot 80 percent of the U.N. tab."
Breaking with the usual environmental orthodoxy of the networks, NBC reporter Roger O'Neil reported on the September 17 Nightly News that the spotted owl, whose welfare spurred timber summits and lost jobs, was vastly undercounted by government biologists. "In the forests of northern California, despite what government scientists and environmentalists said three years ago, there is nothing rare or threatened about the northern spotted owl."
O'Neil noted that new research "is now proving many of the government's earlier assumptions wrong. For example, it was assumed the owl lived only in old growth timber, forest which has never been logged before." In fact, O'Neil added,"thousands of so-called new owls have been found, almost entirely on private timber company land which has been logged before."
Phil Dietrick of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department told O'Neil "I believe you can design systems to maintain owl populations within the contexts of managed timber." O'Neil also noted that to environmentalists, "the spotted owl is part of a bigger strategy -- stop the cutting of big old trees in national forests," concluding, "some biologists agree now that the politics of environmentalism got in the way of careful science."
What a Difference a Producer Makes
ABC Admits Bias
ABC got more than it bargained for when selecting an outsider to take the Executive Producer slot for World News Tonight -- a journalist who thinks the media tilt left. In April, ABC hired Emily Rooney from ABC's Boston affiliate. In the September 27 Electronic Media Rooney explained that in assembling the American Agenda segments "we're trying to tap more into a conservative point of view, the `heart of America' point of view, rather than the traditional media liberal spin on programs. I think we are aware, as everybody who works in the media is, that the old stereotype of the liberal bent happens to be true, and we're making a concerted effort to really look for more from the other, without being ponderous and lecturing or trying to convert people to another way of thinking."
A 1989 MediaWatch analysis of a year's worth of American Agenda stories proved Rooney's contention. MediaWatch found that on health, social and environmental issues ABC stuck to liberal themes "while items on the conservative agenda were ignored."
Within a week, Rooney had convinced Peter Jennings of the problem. He told the October 9 TV Guide that American Agenda has "revolved around a liberal axis" because "a lot of the activism in terms of the social issues we deal with -- education, drugs, the family, health, welfare, and the environment -- has tended to emanate from liberal circles." He promised to "pay more attention to what conservatives are saying."
How about Person of the Week? A 1992 MediaWatch study found from 1988 to 1991, eleven political officials profiled were liberals or Democrats, while only five were conservative or Republican. In the political activist category, liberals were selected 16 times, "but not one conservative made the cut."
Janet Cooke Award: NBC's Jim Maceda Attacks Conservative "Myths" About Health Care
Correcting the Clintons' Critics
In the Reagan era, reporters applied a skeptical eye to the administration's legislative proposals. With a Democrat in the White House, that skepticism is being trained on the new administration's critics. For a one-sided exploration of the "myths" surrounding the Clinton health plan, NBC's Jim Maceda earned the October Janet Cooke Award.
On the September 22 Today, co-host Bryant Gumbel described Maceda's story as a look at "a few common misconceptions." But Maceda selected only one myth-buster: Dr. Arthur Caplan of the University of Minnesota, a liberal.
Asked why Caplan was the only expert, Maceda told MediaWatch: "It was done not as a news report, it was done as an essay. I had freedom to do what I wanted. It was a more subjective piece, and I tried to be thought-provoking, rather than simply informative ...[Caplan] happens to be one of the best I know to raise those issues. Obviously, he is a reform advocate, and I say that throughout." But Caplan was never identified as a liberal or "reform advocate" in the story, and NBC never told viewers that they were seeing an essay or commentary.
NBC's first "myth" was "The Family Doctor." This might be a surprise to millions of Americans who have one, but over video clips of the old TV shows Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D., Maceda remarked: "The rock-solid father figure. Images of the family doctor we as a nation still cling to. Only the stuff of dreamy fiction, say health care advocates."
Caplan lectured: "That you and your doctor are going to go together as a team through the universe of health care, hand in hand, down some path that leads to a golden old age where you part company with a fond farewell to one another, and the only problem is, there are three or four insurance officials and government bureaucrats blocking the path. Marcus Welby left the health care system about 1945."
Maceda moved on to the choice "myth": "But many of us do have private doctors, even if they're not Marcus Welbys, they are our doctors. We chose them, right?"
On came Caplan: "I think I can nominate as the mother of all myths about American health care the idea that choice exists. What you've got is consumers who get no information about their doctor, about their hospital, about their hospice, about their mental health facility. They don't know whether it works or it doesn't work. They have no idea who is doing things to them, whether they're any good, what the costs are, what the prices are." Maceda added: "But that hasn't stopped the media blitz from health providers, insurance companies, warning us that reform could threaten our power to choose."
In other words, choice does not exist because people are too stupid to make choice a meaningful concept. MediaWatch asked Maceda how health care is different from say, auto repair, where consumers often don't know the competence of the mechanic who fixes their car. Maceda responded: "That's correct. That's the point...We don't have choices. We don't know most of the time. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a doctor not knowing who he or she is, absolutely starting from scratch ...It happens all the time, and that's the point I think we needed to raise." By that standard, we should have socialized auto repair.
If Maceda had interviewed Michele Davis, an economist with Citizens for a Sound Economy, she would have offered another view: "President Clinton stated explicitly that reform should empower consumers -- not the government -- to make health care choices. But under the Clinton plan, the federal government would tell all Americans what health insurance benefits they must buy, where to buy them, and how much to pay for them. It's a restriction of choices."
Maceda then addressed the "Managed Care" myth: "Also looming, the specter of managed care, something good for those so-called socialist countries abroad, but surely not for us. But guess what? American health care is already largely managed...Managed care already works in ten states, and, the reformers insist, is saving money."
Misleading. Managed care, through health maintenance organizations (HMOs), does exist, but not top-down government- managed care. As for the declaration that managed care "already works," Michele Davis contended: "One survey of 17,000 patients showed that patients prefer fee-for-service medicine to HMOs in every category -- competence, personal qualities, waiting time, and explanations of their diagnosis."
Maceda then took on the "myth" of "Rationed Care" under the Clinton plan: "In its attempt to economize on our health costs, will President Clinton's reform plan ration our health care?" Caplan declared: "It's not only a myth, it's propaganda. It's basically being used as a scare technique to frighten people out of wanting to change the health care system."
"Flat wrong," Michele Davis told MediaWatch. "With caps on insurance premiums, Clinton's health alliances will have to ration care. If costs grow 10 to 12 percent a year, and you could only raise premiums five percent -- at the same time that you're actually expanding the demand for care by covering the uninsured -- the only way they can survive is by restricting care."
Maceda's story muddied the point by insisting: "These doctors say rationing -- by ability to pay -- has been going on for decades." MediaWatch asked: would it be better or fairer for Americans of all incomes to be denied care? Maceda replied: "That's something I would have liked to go into if I had more time."
Maceda concluded: "Before Clinton gets the maximum bang out of health care's buck, he'll have to address all the lingering myths and fears, but none more than this one: that reform will mean giving up what we've already got."
Unknown. How can Maceda claim it's a "myth" that Americans will have to give up what they have when the Clinton plan hasn't been enacted yet? "I didn't say giving up something, I said giving up everything. If I recall, I said starting from scratch, losing all the good things." After MediaWatch read Maceda the transcript, he replied: "Okay, in context, giving up everything we've already got is what that means, giving up and going plunging into the unknown." Won't people have to give up what they have for the new plan? Maceda admitted: "Sure, people will have to sacrifice. Of course."
Maceda's "myths" weren't errors or falsehoods, but partisan attacks on the notion that conservative criticism matters. If the Clinton plan reduces the choice of doctors, then choice didn't exist; if it leads to government-managed care, people already have managed care; if it leads to system-wide rationing, rationing already exists. NBC shouldn't mislead viewers by pretending such a story is balanced news; it's liberal commentary.