American Press Covers Debate, Not Health Care

Representative Joe Wilson yelled “you lie!” at the president, and the papers loved it. Unfortunately, by a count of more than three to one, the major media articles covering the event did not bother to comment on the substance of issue of that provoked Wilson’s outburst: whether or not illegal immigrants would be provided health care under proposed reforms. There is no health care debate in the mainstream American press. There is only political drama.

The president did not lie. All of the proposed health care reform bills contain language excluding those residing illegally in the US from government-subsidized coverage. This single-sentence fact check was entirely absent from 50 of the 70 articles mentioning “wilson” and “lie” on the New York Times and Washington Post websites as of Monday night. Of the 20 which discussed actual policy, only nine articles mentioned it in the first two paragraphs. (Spreadsheet here.)

Wilson’s outburst will be forgotten long after millions of Americans are insured — or not — under Obama’s plan. It’s just noise and heat. Yet some of the most reputable newspapers in the world have lead with it for the last five days. In fact, the press has in some cases actively dodged the underlying issue. Consider this exchange from an online Q&A session with Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

Cincinnati: Are you saying the President wasn’t lying when he said illegal immigrants won’t be covered? Why not look at the House bill and tell us whether or not it allows illegals to be covered? The Congressional Research service issued a report last week saying there was NOTHING in the House bill that excludes illegals from receiving government-run health care. In other words, be a REPORTER instead of a hack for Barack.

Dana Milbank:  Actually I wasn’t addressing the factual nature of Obama’s speech. The issue wasn’t that Wilson thought the president wasn’t telling the truth; part of the presidential job description calls for expertise in truth shading. The issue was shouting “you lie!” at the president on the House floor during an address to a joint session of Congress.

(For the record, the CRS report in question notes that HR 3200 says “Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.” Which has, oddly, been spun as meaning that illegals would be subsidized!)

It should be no surprise that there is actually substance to the question of coverage for illegal immigrants. Only nine of the 70 pieces get into it: yes, a few undocumented workers could end up getting subsidized health care. No, it’s not worth taxpayer money to add an enforcement mechanism.

But even this is one level removed, and only one article grappled with the fundamental question: would it really be so bad if the poorest workers in America got a break? In fact we might even owe it to them. On average, migrant labor is thought to be a small net gain to the American economy.

I get that Wilson’s little moment is a great story, right up there with the guy who threw a shoe at Bush (who was imprisoned for his prank, with far less coverage.) And I do understand the logic of a populist press as the paper ship sinks. What cannot be excused is the omission of any mention of the substantive content of the debate from the majority of coverage — 50 out of 70 articles said nothing at all about anything that will last.

We are reporting on court theatrics while the citizens starve.

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