REPORT: Fox News' town hall coverage amplifies opponents of health care reform, ignores supporters
Research ››› ››› ELBERT VENTURA & ROB SAVILLO
A Media Matters for America review found that, during the week of August 24, Fox News aired 22 clips of town hall meeting attendees expressing an opinion or asking a question that opposed progressive health care reform efforts but aired zero clips of town hall attendees expressing an opinion or asking a question supporting reform.
Media offer distorted view of town hall meetings
Dionne: Media "went out of their way to cover the noise" at town halls, highlighted "fringe right-wing view." Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote: "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. It's also clear that the anger that got so much attention largely reflects a fringe right-wing view opposed to all sorts of government programs most Americans support." [The Washington Post, 9/03/09]
Kurtz: "[A]nger at town-hall meetings ... became an endless loop on television." Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote: "The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict." Kurtz added: "Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air." [The Washington Post, 8/24/09]
Fox News only interested in covering "yelling" and "contentious questions." As Kurtz reported: "In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: 'I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn't get yelled at.' There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, 'Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we'll bring it to you.' " [The Washington Post, 8/24/09]
On Fox News, anti-reform voices drown out pro-reform ones 22-0
Fox News aired 22 clips of attendees opposed to reform, none of supporters. Fox News aired 22 clips in which town hall attendees expressed an opinion against health care reform, but no clips of attendees expressing support. CNN aired three clips of attendees expressing support and five voicing opposition to reform; MSNBC aired one clip against and none in support:
Fox News features extreme anti-reform rhetoric, ignores substantive, pro-reform questions from town halls
Incendiary town hall rhetoric highlighted by Fox. During the week, Fox News provided a platform for incendiary statements about progressive reform efforts. For example, on five separate occasions, Fox aired a clip of an attendee who said at an August 25 town hall for Sen. John McCain: "No compromises! Senator, nuke it now." Other examples of comments by anti-reform attendees that aired on Fox include:
- "If Nancy Pelosi wants to find a swastika, maybe the first place she should look is the sleeve of her own arm." [Fox & Friends, August 24 coverage of Rep. Brian Baird's (D-WA) August 18 town hall]
- "Have you ever, or any of your family members, lived under so-called socialized medicine, as I call it? I have, and I've had relatives living on it. And trust me, it ain't working." [On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, August 25 coverage of Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) August 25 town hall]
- "I'd like to know why illegal aliens -- illegal -- not members of this country, don't belong here, are gonna be insured under this. .... I have taken the time to look at certain provisions of the bill on the Internet. I can quote the -- what is it? -- the section and the page, and it definitely says that they will be insured. They don't even belong here, and I'm paying for it." [America's Newsroom, August 28 coverage of Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-LA) August 27 town hall]
- "[T]here will be rationing health care. ... [A]nd, in addition, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, through, with the help of pharmaceutical companies, do a lot of research and they have made great strides in helping people like Maya live normal, productive, longer lives. I'm afraid when this government option is passed, Maya's life will not be worth anything to the government." [America's Newsroom, August 28 coverage of McCain's August 26 town hall]
Substantive, pro-reform questions passed over. Despite providing a platform for incendiary anti-reform claims, Fox News repeatedly passed over substantive and pro-reform questions and comments from the town hall meetings that they covered. While those questions could be heard and read in unedited footage of the town halls online or in local coverage of the events, they were not aired on Fox -- even when the network featured footage critical of reform from the same meetings. Examples of questions from pro-reform attendees that Fox News didn't cover include:
- "Could you please help us understand why this single-payer option is not on the table, for one; and two, could you then lead us into some understanding as to why even a public option seems to be in doubt?" [Baird town hall, 8/18/09]
- "I believe you have had access to government-provided health care for most of your life, and, you know, I would imagine that most of us here are on Medicare, and there may be some who would like to give up their Medicare. No, none of us do. So what is so wrong with government-provided health care?" [McCain town hall, 8/25/09]
- "Please support real national health care, also called universal single-payer. It has already ... but it is really better and cheaper." [Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) town hall, 8/27/09]
Nor did Fox News cover this comment from a town hall attendee:
I'm very concerned about the quality of the debate. You know, not only the screaming of misrepresentations, but also the fact that the press really doesn't seem to want to cover policy. You know, they want to cover gossip, and I'm very disappointed, and I would like all of you press to start covering the policy. [Moran town hall, 8/25/09]
On one occasion, Fox News played a clip from Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) August 24 town hall in which a woman talked about her husband's battle with a brain injury but did not express an opinion for or against health care reform. The woman said: "My husband has traumatic brain injury. His health insurance will not cover him to eat and drink. And what I need to know is, are you going to help him where he can eat and drink? We left the nursing home, and they told us we're on our own." Coburn responded, "Well, I think -- first of all, yeah, we'll help. The first thing we'll do is see what we can do individually to help you, through our office. But the other thing that's missing in this debate is us as neighbors, helping people that need our help. You know, we tend to -- the idea that the government is the solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement." CNN and MSNBC aired the clip a total of nine times during that week.
Reporting contradicts Fox's assertions about degree of anti-reform sentiment at meetings
Fox played up "boo[ing]" at town hall -- other reporting said it was an aberration. A Fox & Friends August 25 news brief about Sen. Claire McCaskill's (D-MO) August 24 town hall featured on-screen text reading, "TOWN HALL TEMPERS: SEN. MCCASKILL GETS BOOED," as well as footage of the audience booing. However, in an article about the town hall, the Associated Press reported: "A couple of shouts and a few boos punctuated Sen. Claire McCaskill's health care forum in Hannibal, but mostly the crowd crammed into a grade school auditorium offered polite, if mixed, feedback." [Associated Press, 8/24/09]
Fox suggestion of overwhelming opposition at Moran meeting undermined by other press accounts. On the August 26 edition of America's Newsroom, after airing a clip from Moran's August 25 town hall, co-host Gregg Jarrett stated that there "seemed to be more jeers than cheers at that town hall meeting." That sentiment was echoed on Special Report later that day, when host Bret Baier reported: "Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran was greeted by boos Tuesday in Reston, and the crowd frequently interrupted him. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean was also on hand and both were given a hard time by many of the 3,000 people in that audience."
However, according to an August 26 account of that same town hall by CQ Today, "conservative protesters ... were overmatched by supporters of Moran and Obama, who had their own signs -- or were provided them by Organizing for America, Obama's grass-roots support group -- and who were able to yell loudest." In its August 26 report on the town hall, The Washington Post noted: "Unlike at many town hall meetings that have received attention across the country, the crowd in the Democratic-leaning district was dominated by reform proponents, many carrying signs distributed by President Obama's political action group Organizing for America." [The Washington Post, 8/26/09]
Media Matters searched digital video and Nexis transcripts, when available, for clips of health care town halls on all original programming on CNN, the Fox News Channel, and MSNBC from August 24 through August 28. The Nexis search string used was "health and town!." Any clips discovered through the Nexis search were also reviewed on digital video.
Media Matters coded every time a clip of a town hall was played. For a clip to be included in the analysis of pro- and anti-reform attendees, it had to meet two standards: 1) the clip had to feature a question or comment from a town hall attendee that could be classified as either pro- or anti-reform, and 2) the town hall featured in the clip had to be identifiable by date, location, and member of Congress. Clips of town halls that were included in packaged news stories were not included in the analysis unless the story was primarily about the town halls. Live coverage of town halls and coverage of protests outside the town halls were also not included in the analysis. Teasers were not included unless they contained footage that was substantially different from the segment they teased.