Cable news outlets dedicated considerable attention to the “Resistance Recess” that swept through congressional town hall meetings over the past week, as tens of thousands of Americans voiced their fear and disapproval of Republican plans to dismantle health care reform, among other issues. Yet evening and prime-time coverage of the grass-roots groundswell largely failed to include perspectives from those attendees opposed to efforts to roll back reforms.
The week of February 18-26 marked the first congressional recess period of 2017 and created an ideal opportunity for American voters concerned with the trajectory of their government to directly petition elected officials face to face. Americans capitalized on this opportunity by flooding in-district town hall events across the country demanding that representatives on both sides of the aisle stand up to President Trump’s radical agenda. Among attendees’ demands was that elected officials present viable solutions to further the cause of health care reform beyond merely “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Cable news outlets used the town hall turmoil as the basis for 53 evening and prime-time news segments from the start of the recess period through February 27 discussing how the demonstrations might affect the future of health care reform in the United States. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these discussions failed to include input from people voicing disapproval with Republican plans to repeal or significantly alter the ACA at those town halls. Media Matters identified 88 guests during evening and prime-time cable programming related to the town halls -- mostly reporters and political pundits. Only three of the 88 guests were town hall attendees affected by the outcome of this health care debate.
The February 27 edition of MSNBC’s All In did feature an impassioned interview with cancer survivor and Boing Boing editor Xeni Jardin, who, though not identified as a town hall participant, outlined how the ACA granted her access to what would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive life-saving treatments. All three of the actual town hall attendees were featured in two segments aired during the February 22 edition of MSNBC’s For the Record, which featured constituents who attended town halls hosted by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). In the first segment, an Arkansas constituent named Suzie Bell, who co-founded a rural free health clinic, questioned why Cotton wanted to restrict access for the patients she serves. In the next segment, Louisiana constituents Laura Kelley and Shawon Bernard expressed the collective “frustration” of fellow attendees about a laundry list of issues, including the future of the ACA:
MSNBC featured the most guests (46) and the most segments (29) focused on the town halls, but only two segments featured the three aforementioned town hall attendees. CNN featured 30 guests across 18 segments, but no town hall attendees in prime-time. Fox News lagged far behind the competition, featuring just 12 guests during 6 segments discussing the town hall protests and also failed to include any attendees.
CNN's failure to book any town hall attendees during evening or prime-time slots is particularly perplexing given that the network did interview town hall attendees outside of the influential prime-time window. On the February 22 edition of CNN Newsroom, host Brooke Baldwin interviewed Rose Perkins, whose dressing down of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at a town hall the day before had already become a viral sensation. Meanwhile, CNN Tonight host Don Lemon interviewed Kati McFarland, a young woman who credits the ACA with keeping her alive despite her chronic, life-threatening illness and whose heartfelt plea to Cotton created an uproar. But the piece didn’t air until 12:19 a.m. on Saturday, February 25. (McFarland was also interviewed by MSNBC’s Ali Velshi during daytime programming on February 23.)
The nationwide coalition of demonstrators, which progressive groups like MoveOn.org have dubbed the “Resistance Recess,” found many Republican members of Congress unprepared to face tough questions. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that many constituents stand to lose their health insurance or see their premiums soar if Trump and the GOP succeed in gutting the ACA. Rather than simply reporting on the abstract optics of these demonstrations, media outlets need to focus on the human beings who dedicated their time to safeguard legislation that benefits millions of Americans every day.
Media Matters conducted a Nexis and SnapStream search of transcripts of cable evening and prime-time (defined as 6 p.m. through 11 p.m.) weekday programs on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC from February 18 through February 27, 2017. We identified and reviewed all segments that included any of the following keywords: affordable care act or aca or obamacare or healthcare or health care or protester or demonstrator or townhall or town hall.
The following programs were included in the data: The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Tonight, Special Report, The First 100 Days, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, Hardball, For the Record, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. For shows that air reruns, only the first airing was included in data retrieval.