If It Screams, It Leads
I've attended a couple town halls out here in Southern California, and I found them all to be teabag-free. They were also invisible in the national debate. I wondered about, in those higher-profile cases of teabaggery, the utility of a random sample of screamers showing up at a meeting on a weeknight in terms of public opinion at large. Now, E.J. Dionne tells us that it was a sample within a sample - that the cable nets were looking for some action, and we all went right along with them.
Health-care reform is said to be in trouble partly because of those raucous August town-hall meetings in which Democratic members of Congress were besieged by shouters opposed to change.
But what if our media-created impression of the meetings is wrong? What if the highly publicized screamers represented only a fraction of public opinion? What if most of the town halls were populated by citizens who respectfully but firmly expressed a mixture of support, concern and doubt?
There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television's point of view "boring") encounters between elected representatives and their constituents.
I figured this to be the case, but confess to not being vocal enough about it. Dionne actually finds the smoking gun here:
Over the past week, I've spoken with Democratic House members, most from highly contested districts, about what happened in their town halls. None would deny polls showing that the health-reform cause lost ground last month, but little of the probing civility that characterized so many of their forums was ever seen on television [...]
Rep. Frank Kratovil hails from a very conservative district that includes Maryland's Eastern Shore and says it didn't bother him that he was hung in effigy in July by a right-wing group. "As a former prosecutor, I consider that to be mild," he said with a chuckle. The episode, he added, was not at all typical of his town-hall meetings, where "most of the people were there to express legitimate concerns about the bill, wondering about how it was going to impact them" and wanting "to know the truth about some of the things that were being said about the bill."
The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham.
The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: "Your meeting doesn't get covered unless it blows up." As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No "news" there. (emphasis mine)
Dammit, dammit, dammit. And too much of the blogosphere fell for this, by the way.
Covering conflict is basically what cable news does, whether it's two talking heads in the studio or footage of a car chase. Their job is to sensationalize and titillate and draw eyeballs. In this case, they told a false narrative about a nation rising up against health care, and it led to a general impression that health care reform was becoming unpopular, which led to... polls showing reform becoming less popular. Keep this in mind when you hear the story about the bitten finger today on an endless loop.
The media will of course tell you they're bystanders, documenters, observers. Dionne's column puts the lie to that. They wrote a story for the month of August and then found the footage to justify it. And then people not engaged with the process watch a few selected soundbites from town hall meetings and figure something must be wrong with the policy if it inspires so much hatred.
Your liberal media. Watch the health industry ads skyrocket as a token of thanks for their attempt to kill health care reform.