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The most exasperating, if utterly predictable, lesson from the Henry Louis Gates Jr. contretemps was not about race. It was about the persistent vapidity and superficiality of the news media, even at a time of serious national crisis. And it was another tutorial in the news media’s still-powerful ability to set the agenda for what we are supposed to pay attention to and think about, and what we are supposed to ignore.
At the end of President Obama’s hour-long press conference on July 22, in which he spoke with impressive command and clarity about the urgent need for healthcare reform, Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, asked the now-infamous question about what the Gates arrest meant to Obama personally and “what does it say about race relations in America?” His response, approximately .03 percent of the entire news conference, was all any of the media chattering classes talked about the next day. (Sweet’s blog is full of negative comments, like this from another reporter: “Your ‘question’ was designed to torpedo the President’s presentation on healthcare reform … You were manipulating for a headline and sensation.”)
With the speed of light, The Today Show got two guests to go on air the very next morning to debate whether Obama should or should not have used the word “stupidly.” Here’s how Matt Lauer opened the segment: “Let’s begin with the president’s prime-time news conference … and some very strong comments that the president made that had nothing to do with healthcare.” (This then ensured that the segment would also have “nothing to do with healthcare.”) If things veered off topic, Lauer reminded his guests what the most important issue from the previous night was: “Getting back to the president’s choice of words, that the ‘Cambridge police acted stupidly’ …” Lauer was hardly alone. The morning talk shows were all obsessing over the same word, and in the evening this was the driving story on all three networks.
By the time we got to the evening of the “beer summit,” it was the lead story on all three networks. Several reports, like Andrea Mitchell’s on NBC, actually gave airtime to the rantings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. So we got to hear Limbaugh say, “President Obama is black. I think he has a chip on his shoulder,” and Beck opine that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” followed by “This guy is, I believe, a racist.”
This is superficial and irresponsible celebrity journalism posing as something more high-minded because it was allegedly about race relations. Meanwhile, as Paul Krugman has pointed out in the New York Times, “healthcare reform must climb a wall of misinformation.” Conservatives seem to have had some success in convincing people that the quality of their care will decline, their taxes will rise, and that any government involvement in healthcare would be disastrous when, of course, the government is already involved. As Krugman has noted repeatedly, the recipients of Medicare, a single-payer system, consistently express greater satisfaction with it than do Americans with private insurance.
Not only did much of the broadcast and cable news media fail to use the Obama press conference to provide more in-depth coverage and analysis of the various healthcare options on the table, many have adopted an “inevitable failure” frame, suggesting that Obama will not get healthcare reform passed, which might be fine because Americans are allegedly having second thoughts and don’t want it anyway. As blogger Andrew Tyndall reports, for example, Chip Reid emphasized the unfavorable statistics in his network’s latest CBS-New York Times poll. Reid focused on the number of those worried that the eventual legislation would diminish the quality of healthcare (69 percent), increase its cost (77 percent) or raise their taxes (76 percent). “He still has not convinced most Americans,” was Reid’s takeaway message. However, other numbers in the poll show that a huge majority of Americans – 82 percent – agree that the current system needs reform, 75 percent worry that if there is no reform medical costs will continue to spiral up and 66 percent still want a government-run healthcare option. Chuck Todd of NBC also cited Obama’s declining approval ratings and concluded that it was “the campaign for healthcare” that has “taken a serious toll on him and his party.”
The need for healthcare reform is urgent. If we don’t get it, we can thank the Republicans and the Blue Dog Democrats. But let’s not forget to thank the news media as well.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.