A chance for big media to show their worth

Strong, broadly popular health care reform is in danger of dying in a smoke-filled back room, without transparency or accountability. So far, the media have helped the politicians avoid accountability -- but it isn't too late to change.

If any big news organizations are looking for a way to prove their worth in the face of mounting public skepticism, I have a story for them. And it doesn't even require wading into boring policy details reporters hate so much. It's all about what's really important -- you know, process, and politics.

That probably sounds sarcastic, but this really is an important story. And it dovetails nicely with themes the media have long stressed: The importance of transparency and accountability, and the idea that 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate.

So, here goes: Some news organization struggling to stay relevant in an ever-changing world (and, really, aren't they all?) should ask all the members of the Senate whether they would vote to sustain a filibuster on health care reform legislation that includes a strong public option. They should report the results and keep a running tally. Their coverage of the health care debate going forward should reflect the premise that the cloture vote is what really matters -- a premise the media have been insisting upon all year. That means not making a big deal of a senator's stated opposition to reform (or to the public option) unless the senator indicates an intention to filibuster reform.

So far this year, news reports about the legislative prospects for health care reform have routinely stressed the need for 60 votes. That's reasonable enough, if Democrats choose not to pursue reform through the reconciliation process. (Though it does introduce a subtle anti-reform skew into the public discourse: by treating the filibuster as routine rather than the extraordinary measure it has historically been, the media make life easier for those trying to thwart reform.)

But when it comes to actually assessing the likelihood of getting those 60 votes, news reports have gone off the rails. They've treated opposition to a specific aspect of reform (the public option) as though it is synonymous with a willingness to not only vote against reform that contains that provision, but also with an intent to actually filibuster such legislation.

Take, for example, this Washington Post article from Wednesday:

A key Senate panel twice beat back efforts Tuesday to create a government-run insurance plan, dealing a crippling blow to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform."


Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Mont.) was one of three Democrats who voted no on both proposals. Baucus, who has emerged as the central player in shaping the bill, which is likely to be the main vehicle for debate on the Senate floor, said he supports the principle of a public option as an alternative to private insurance. But he warned that including it could doom the bill to a Republican filibuster.

“No one has been able to show me how we can count up to 60 votes with a public option,” Baucus said. “I want a bill that can become law.”

The Post article didn't mention a single senator who has so much as hinted at a willingness to filibuster health care reform that includes a public option. Not one. The paper portrayed the opposition of some senators to a public option as a “crippling blow” -- as though opposing a public option on a standalone vote is the same thing as intending to filibuster an entire reform package that contains the provision.

The two are quite obviously not the same thing. For one thing, senators vote for legislation containing specific provisions they oppose all the time. It's pretty much unavoidable, actually. That's quite obvious, so let's not dwell on it here.

The other reason they are not the same thing is that it is harder to vote against cloture than against passage. That is, in fact, implicit in the respective vote totals required. If weren't more difficult for a senator to vote to sustain a filibuster than to vote against passage, there would be no reason to have a cloture/filibuster process -- Senate rules would simply require 60 votes for passage.

All year, the media have focused on how much more difficult it is to invoke cloture than to muster a simple majority. And, in a way, it clearly is: You need 60 votes, not 50. But the other side of the coin has gone unnoticed. A bill's advocates may need to reach a higher number to invoke cloture, as opposed to passage, but the bill's opponents must convince senators to take extreme action in order to prevent cloture. That second point is particularly significant when -- as is currently the case -- one party's caucus contains at least 60 members.

In order to filibuster health care reform that includes a public option, the Republicans have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to filibuster his or her own party's highest legislative priority. They have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to filibuster legislation that enjoys strong and broad public support -- over a provision that would reduce the cost of the bill, something the most conservative Democratic senators say is a priority. They have to convince at least one member of the Democratic caucus to hand a Democratic president, and the Democratic Party, a significant political defeat heading into an election year.

And that assumes they can convince Republican senators like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to filibuster health care reform. If they can't, they need to offset any losses with additional Democrats.

Can they do it? Sure, it's possible. But it isn't as simple as it looks from news reports that treat any public option skeptic as someone who will filibuster. That's why Sen. Tom Harkin says there will be 60 votes for cloture even though some of the most conservative Democrats and least conservative Republicans have indicated opposition to a public plan -- he knows it's harder to filibuster something than to vote against it.

Now, is Harkin right that there will be 60 votes, or is Baucus right when he says there won't be? We don't know -- nobody is publicly saying how they'll vote on cloture.

Which brings us to transparency ... and to accountability.

The way the news media have been covering the health care debate -- assuming opposition is synonymous with an intent to filibuster and, as a result, not actually asking anyone if they'll filibuster -- creates the perception that Baucus is right, that such legislation could never get cloture. And so health care reform containing a public option may never come to a vote, not even a cloture vote.

If that happens, a few senators will have killed the very popular public option not by announcing their intent to filibuster it, but by creating the perception that it would be successfully filibustered -- perhaps by others. (Remember: Baucus says he voted against the public option in committee not because he opposes it, but because unnamed other senators will filibuster it.) The public will never know who really killed it. They'll never know who would have filibustered it -- or even who was willing to say they would filibuster it.

Strong health care reform that enjoys widespread public support will, in that scenario, essentially die in a smoke-filled back room. There will be no transparency and no accountability. That, it seems obvious, is just the way some politicians want it. After all, if they were willing to face the consequences for killing reform, they could just come forward right now and announce their intent to filibuster. The fact that they haven't done so is de facto proof that they either aren't willing to filibuster or that they want to avoid accountability if at all possible. That's an understandable desire on their end -- but there's no reason journalists or the public should defer to it.

The good news is that fate is easily avoided. All it requires is one news organization to behave as though it believes what the media have been reporting all year -- that cloture is the vote that matters. If they do, they'll start working to get senators on the record about whether they'll filibuster. Their reporting going forward will focus not on whether senators say they agree or disagree with the public option, but on whether they will filibuster reform that includes such an option. That will go a long way toward showing who is right -- Max Baucus or Tom Harkin.

It may not make a difference in whether health care reform passes, or what it looks like if it does -- but that isn't the media's job. The media's job is to show the public what is happening. To hold politicians accountable rather than allowing them to kill popular reforms silently and secretly, without casting a vote or even making their intentions clear. To demand straight answers rather than making assumptions about how senators will vote.

That's something large news organizations -- like, say, The Washington Post or NBC News -- are perfectly situated to do. They have the resources to ask 100 senators how they'll vote on cloture -- and to regularly report the answers (including which senators won't answer) to large audiences. And to focus public attention on what they've said matters all along -- how many senators will filibuster, and which ones.

That's something the Post or NBC or CNN can do better than any blogger, any independent or ideological media outlet. They have the resources, the reach, and the stature. It's a chance for them to prove they really do still have something to offer that can't be easily replaced by smaller, cheaper, more nimble competitors.

Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.