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Media Beat

Media's frozen health care debate



This year, no one can complain about the quantity of health care coverage in news media. But quality is another matter.

The more things change, the more that narrow limits remain. Media discourse seems to be like a broken record.

For young readers, I should explain that “broken record” is an outdated expression referring to scratched vinyl recordings on turntable devices. Just a few decades ago, “CD” was understood to mean civil defense, civil disobedience or certificate of deposit.

But I digress.

Whatever their ages, people in the United States must navigate a health care system — or, perhaps more accurately, non-system — that is woefully inadequate and sometimes deadly.

Media accounts keep telling us that the current political debate on health care is unprecedented and groundbreaking. But an article in

the new edition of the Columbia

Journalism Review, by seasoned health care reporter Trudy Lieberman, makes a convincing case that not much has changed within the frames of media parameters.

The press “has mostly passed along the pronouncements of politicians and the major stakeholders who have the most to lose from wholesale reform,” Lieberman writes. “By not challenging the status quo, the press has so far foreclosed a vibrant discussion of the full range of options, and also has not dug deeply into the few that are being discussed, thereby leaving citizens largely uninformed about an issue that will affect us all.”

What we’re seeing now is a slightly freshened version of a timeworn tap dance that ranges across a constricted media stage. As Lieberman notes: “Absent from the debate are not only singlepayer systems like the ones in England and Canada, but other systems with multiple payers, like ones in Germany and Japan — or, for that matter, any discussion of why a system that relies on competition among private insurers in The Netherlands hasn’t resulted in lower prices for consumers, as advocates claimed.”

The variety of health care delivery systems abroad, in industrialized countries, spans a common assumption — in effect, the idea that health care is a human right — an assumption that doesn’t cut the mass-media mustard in the United States. “What’s common to all these systems,” Lieberman points out, “is that everyone is entitled to health care and pays taxes to support the system, and medical costs are controlled by limits on spending. The specter of a system that takes a significant bite out of stakeholder profits in the U.S. is the real reason the debate is so restricted.”

As Trudy Lieberman puts it, “Reform efforts have danced around this impasse for decades.”

That helps to explain why so much media coverage of health care reform proposals is apt to be so baffling to most readers, listeners and viewers. When the big elephant (or, if you will, donkey) in the national newsroom is dependent on the insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital industries for financing, there’s a distinct shortage of candor about the consequences of such ongoing intrusions. Newsgathering, media debate — and, of course, health care — suffer the consequences.

In the mid-1960s, Medicare became law with the stroke of a presidential pen. Lyndon Johnson was able to sign the measure despite a huge onslaught of opposition from right-wing politicians, their corporate backers and professional groups like the American Medical Association.

Today, the kind of arguments that were heard during the early ’60s against guaranteed health care for the elderly can now be heard against establishing a comprehensive single-payer system — also known as Medicare for all. But now, the health care debate is trapped between a political establishment that doesn’t want a single-payer system and news media that prefer to ignore its real potential.

Norman Solomon is the author of the book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” which has been made into a documentary film.

©2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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