Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 13, 2009

Healthcare Fact-Check: Why Big News Agencies Still Matter

I just read a few revealing and somewhat comforting entries at, in their Political Ticker section, separating the truth from the fear-mongering half-truths floating around about pending health care reform legislation.

The verdict: in a nutshell, the conservative pundits typically either don’t have their facts straight, or they’re lying. Even the AMA, not exactly a bastion of liberalism, is standing with Congress and the Prez on the necessity of us all having the courage to change the healthcare financing system. So let’s not let big business insurance lobbyists and big pharma be the tails that wag the American dog.

Over the past few months of healthcare debate I’ve watched and listened –but kept both pro and con rhetoric at arm’s length–  including the alarm/amusement factor that the town hall shouting matches have devolved into at times. And yeah, I know Medicare is poorly run, and that rank-and-file government employees’ work ethic often leaves much to be desired, and that the Canadian model has its own problems. But that’s no reason to believe we can’t still clean things up and build a better system. Call it something OTHER than Medicare, or stop crying “Socialism!”, and maybe the panic will subside. (Nah. Too profitable to keep us cowering…)

However, knowing the truth about what the actual House and Senate bills say in their text is a bit harder to do in this case. Because nobody likes sifting through a hundred or more pages of legalese, trying to interpret technical, medical and legal language. And there are still some unknowns — it’s hard to predict how future agencies, insurers, doctors and judges will interpret the law itself.  It’s hard work. To see the loopholes and close them in advance. To agree that even if increased taxation does eventually need to get involved, at least it will be money spent to save lives and ease one of the most stressful aspects of American life.

But take it from an English teacher: regular people ain’t gonna do their homework! We’re lazy. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can be otherwise and make a complete 180-degree turnaround.

Which is where trusted news agencies like CNN come in. They have the reach and resources to crunch the numbers, and to head off b.s. at the pass on our behalf, before the bulls stampede and trample us. Not that I think CNN is unbiased. I know it leans liberal, and maybe conservative on an issue or two.  But it easily runs circles around Fox News and the old major networks with regard to setting aside bias and just doing the JOB of news agencies, which is to inform us fully and ACCURATELY. And it’s high time we got informed — and a little less lazy, for once. We’re spoiled as a nation, an idea that became clearer to me after seeing firsthand a bit of how they do things differently in Europe.

The best information you will get on American tv, though, generally comes from PBS (especially the Lehrer Newshour) on domestic issues, and possibly from BBC World News on international matters (though I need to do homework myself on that claim). Why? Smarter people, fewer kooks. They dispense with fancy animated graphics in favor of direct, old-fashioned, well-informed reporters.  They take the time needed to put a decent panel discussion together, with specialists in these fields, not blowhard pundits and corporate shills with something to lose.

Plus the PBS folks have to digest, package and interpret the facts in the leanest, most useful way they can, since they don’t have a CNN-style budget, or 24 hours to work with. Oh, and they also know how to put a classic liberal and classic conservative in a room together and not create a shouting match –because they are not in the entertainment business, they’re in the news business. They have self-respect, and respect for the viewer. They’re not owned by Time Warner, or Foxy Rupert Murdoch, or any other corporation interested in maximizing profit at the expense of integrity.

The newspapers do an okay job of sifting and sorting out the facts, or at least being honest about what’s just someone’s opinion (since they do call it the “editorial page”). But as has been lamented ad nauseum of late, the printed newspaper is a dinosaur. Readership is dropping, and I think it’s likely that quality and integrity will start being compromised in this kind of sinking-ship environment. But we’ll see.

As for talk radio, don’t expect much help there. I’m an on-again/off-again fan of Air America and of WCPT, the Chicago-based progressive talk radio station that carries some of the Air America syndicated shows. WCPT (820 AM, plus several North/South/West regional FM choices) is decent, if you’re into talk radio. (Which generally, I ain’t… I’m a music and sportstalk guy.)  Yet I don’t have any illusions about the reach of those progressive shows as compared to the ones on the conservative-leaning stations, such as WLS-AM in Chicago.  The progressives’ market share is probably less than a quarter the size of the more entrenched conservative big boys. One can even tell by the nature of the WCPT advertising, which isn’t the slick, high-powered, mainstream variety you get on the more established stations, but leans toward a more home-made variety, with a few too many public service announcements.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even trust WGN Radio 720, that venerable old grand dame with a super-strong signal throughout the Midwest. With Wally Phillips and other folksy stars of yesteryear, WGN practically invented the talk radio format, before Limbaugh and Hannity could even spell Nielsen (as in ratings). But now, WGN is chasing the flash as well, maybe a bit panicked about the aging of their traditional audience.

It’s just too easy to take the hype and the panicked call-ins more seriously than they ought to be taken, no matter which way one’s politics lean. The substitution of style for substance, of humor or shock-value for hard honesty, is par for the course on most talk radio, and creeping into other venues as well . Maybe I don’t trust these hosts, or their producers, to do their homework either.

The internet? That’s a whole other area I can’t even get into now, even though I know I ought to. But my time’s up.

So my money’s on the American public, the public that elected Obama and this Congress, showing that they’re tired of being duped by false advertising and bait-and-switch tactics when it comes to their health, their families, their soldier sons and daughters, and so on. Sure we’re asking government to do more, and maybe know a bit more about us. But we’re not talkin’ fascism or Big Brother here. A little more government control (especially of an unfair, out-of-control system) never hurt anyone… except maybe Bill O’Reilly.



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