Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander weighs in on his paper's coverage of health care:
In my examination of roughly 80 A-section stories on health-care reform since July 1, all but about a dozen focused on political maneuvering or protests. The Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism had a similar finding. Its recent month-long review of Post front pages found 72 percent of health-care stories were about politics, process or protests.
"The politics has been covered, but all of this is flying totally over the heads of people," said Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review, who has been tracking coverage by The Post and other news organizations. "They have not known from Day One what this was about."
Kaiser's president and CEO, Drew Altman, worries that the media have devoted too much attention to "accusation and refutation" stories instead of focusing on the "core questions about health-care reform that the public wants answered."
By "gravitating toward controversies" such as the recent boisterous town hall meetings on health care, he said, the media may "unwittingly" be allowing coverage to be shaped by evocative rhetoric and images.
None of this should come as a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention. The media's coverage of the health care debate has been atrocious -- focusing on polls and politics rather than explaining the facts about health care; allowing false claims to drive the discourse, and generally failing to help anyone understand anything useful. I've been writing that for weeks.
There is, however, one person who was probably surprised by Alexander's findings: Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, the biggest name in the business. He has frequently defended media coverage of health care over the past several weeks.
Alexandria, Va.: Overall, I think the fabled mainstream media has done a great job covering protests and opinions on both sides of the health-care debate, but they get a D- on presenting an overall, easy to understand what it all means. I've been disappointed that controversy, over detailed analysis wins yet again. Sorry, those multiple Web links to copies of the bill don't help. This should be a major national debate, but overall, the coverage is too much flash and not enough substance.
Howard Kurtz: I'm going to partially disagree. If you look at the major newspapers, and the recent Time cover story, there has been a lot of detailed substance published about almost every aspect of the health care debate: public option, Medicare reimbursement, industry lobbying, end-of-life counseling, you name it. It's out there. It's not hard to find.
Louisville, Colo.: You have written and talked about "horse-race" coverage many times but it's still frustrating to watch. Approximately 95 percent of the TV coverage about health-care legislation boils down to "will it pass or won't it".
The coverage of the the actual substance of the proposed legislation continues to be minimal. Is it just too much work to find out what is actually in the legislation?
Howard Kurtz: You know, I think that's a bum rap. I could point you to literally dozens and dozens of stories in the NYT, WP, LAT, WSJ and even on television that deals with the substance of the legislation.
Howard Kurtz: The hard fact is that most people think the system is broken but are relatively satisfied with their own health care. Or they're not satisfied with having to deal with infuriating insurance companies but some fear the Obama plan could be worse. It's a very complicated issue with lots of moving parts, including the gargantuan task of how to pay for covering more of the uninsured, and I think the reporting has actually been pretty good. There is a tendency to get too caught up in each little twist and turn on the Hill, but that's true of all political reporting.
Howard Kurtz has a bigger platform than any other media critic in America. It sure would be great if he didn't use it to act as head cheerleader for the media's failed health care coverage.