About those health care protesters

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Marc Ambinder seems to think that liberals are ignoring "real health care anxiety," as expressed by people yelling at town hall events. And he seems to think he's being criticized for pointing out that such anxiety exists.

I think what's really happening is that some liberals think the media should not behave as though a few very loud, very angry protesters are representative of the public at large. And they shouldn't report the things those protesters are yelling -- or even the "real health care anxiety" many other Americans are feeling -- without making clear whether or not the concerns are factually correct.

Basically, by endlessly reporting that town hall events are being interrupted by yelling anti-health-care-reform protesters, the media is giving disproportionate attention to what polls show to be the minority of the public that opposes reform. And by failing to point out when those complaints are factually inaccurate, the media is further amplifying their power.

Video of a handful of shouting protesters may make for better television than factual explanations of health care reform, and refutations of false claims about it, or recitations of polling data showing those protesters to be in the minority -- but it makes for worse journalism.

Ambinder says "protesters are mix of artificial and real. Point is: they're THERE." Well, sure. But that's a pretty banal point. Nobody doubts that they're there. We see the video every time we turn on cable news. But what do they mean? How significant are their numbers? Are their facts right? Those are the things reporters should focus on, not simply assuming that because they are loud, they are powerful or right. There were plenty of angry yelling people at McCain-Palin rallies last year, too -- and they didn't turn out to matter at all, because they were representative of only a small portion of the country.

(This is where Ambinder says I don't understand how things are, and I reply that I do -- but Ambinder doesn't understand they don't have to be, and shouldn't be, how they are.)

UPDATE: Ezra Klein points out that at health care events over the past several years, "one thing is perfectly predictable: The Q&A session will be dominated by single-payer activists asking about HR 676." Now, maybe you've noticed the lack of media attention paid to these public demands for single-payer health care by real Americans over the years. So, no, the media doesn't have to breathlessly report every time some obscure member of congress gets a question from someone who has been lied to about what health care reform will involve.

UPDATE 2: Ambinder elaborates -- and basically says reporters can't say weather health care reform concerns are valid:

Take, for example, the question of whether people would have to change their policies or their doctors as the result of a robust public plan. Obama says no -- and he makes a credible argument for it. Many real people -- regardless of their motives -- have legitimate and credible reasons to believe that the answer is yes.

Nonsense. We know that none of the health care bills in question would require anyone to change health care plans or doctors. None of them.

Ambinder doesn't explain what the "legitimate and credible reasons" to believe that people would have to change policies and doctors are. But whatever they are, they certainly don't preclude reporters from saying "None of the proposed reforms would require anyone to change health care plans or doctors." If Ambinder can come up with a credible argument why people would be required to do so, fine: reporters can and should mention that argument, too. (Though they needn't and shouldn't give it equal weight if it isn't equally-likely.)

That's the responsible way to cover the "anxiety" Ambinder is obsessed with: to assess how valid it is. That may not mean being able to definitively say "true" or "false" -- but the answer isn't, as Ambinder seems to think, to throw your hands up in the air, decide you can't know for sure so you won't even try to assess it, and decide that your job is simply to report that concerns exist.

And, really, I can't believe anyone would seriously think that is the correct path to take. Why would you become a reporter if you think the job simply entails announcing that concerns exist without assessing the validity of those concerns?

Posted In
Health Care, Health Care Reform
Marc Ambinder
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