Press Distorts Healthcare Debate

Cronkite satirical image

The corporate media continues its misinformation campaign against healthcare reform.

Major television networks have given inordinate attention to “perceived setbacks” to healthcare reform legislation while downplaying any progress, according to Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group.

Meanwhile, on a local level, The Oklahoman continues its relentless opposition to healthcare reform in editorial after editorial, often without mentioning there are approximately 46 million people in the nation without health insurance or that the price of healthcare and health insurance premiums have risen astronomically over the last decade.

The Oklahoman resorts to typical hackneyed, clichéd arguments about healthcare from a right-wing perspective. According to a recent editorial, “As it is, the legislation is a big-government liberal’s health care dream come true.” This “liberal’s health care dream” tripe prevents real discussion about the issue.

Here are some facts about healthcare in Oklahoma, which I have reported on before:

Roughly 1.9 million people in Oklahoma get health insurance on the job, where family premiums average $12,256, about the annual earning of a full-time minimum wage job.

Since 2000 alone, average family premiums have increased by 77 percent in Oklahoma.

Household budgets are strained by high costs: 29 percent of middle-income Oklahoma families spend more than 10 percent of their income on health care.

High costs block access to care: 17 percent of people in Oklahoma report not visiting a doctor due to high costs.

Oklahoma businesses and families shoulder a hidden health tax of roughly $1,900 per year on premiums as a direct result of subsidizing the costs of the uninsured.

19 percent of people in Oklahoma are uninsured, and 70 percent of them are in families with at least one full-time worker.

The percent of Oklahomans with employer coverage is declining: 54 percent were covered in 2007.

While small businesses make up 78 percent of Oklahoma businesses, only 39 percent of them offered health coverage benefits in 2006.

Choice of health insurance is limited in Oklahoma. BCBS OK alone constitutes 45 percent of the health insurance market share in Oklahoma, with the top two insurance providers accounting for 71 percent.

Choice is even more limited for people with pre-existing conditions. In Oklahoma, premiums can vary based on demographic factors and health status, and coverage can exclude pre-existing conditions or even be denied completely.

The overall quality of care in Oklahoma is rated as “Weak.”

16 percent of children in Oklahoma are obese.

28 percent of women over the age of 50 in Oklahoma have not received a mammogram in the past two years.

45 percent of men over the age of 50 in Oklahoma have never had a colorectal cancer screening.

Why do the editorials against healthcare reform in The Oklahoman never honestly address these issues? Health insurance premiums in Oklahoma have risen 77 percent since 2000, but the newspaper’s editorial writers apparently don’t even see it as a compelling issue in the healthcare reform debate.

The Media Matters study shows, perhaps, an even more insidious and subtle misinformation effort at work.

According to Media Matters:

In their health care reform coverage, media have repeatedly given considerably more attention to perceived setbacks to progressive reform efforts than to events that signal progress for those efforts. A Media Matters for America analysis of transcripts available in the Nexis database has found that broadcast and cable news featured almost twice as many segments mentioning the American Medical Association's (AMA's) reported opposition to a public insurance plan as segments mentioning the AMA's recent announcement that it supported the House Democrats' health care reform bill, which includes a public plan.

When it comes to healthcare reform, the corporate media is acting typically conservative, supporting the interests of big health insurance companies over ordinary people. In the end, this is a bad, long-term business model for major media news outlets, some of which are in financial decline.

The question is how the Democratic-controlled Congress and President Barack Obama should counteract the corporate media’s bias against healthcare reform as the debate intensifies and Republicans rely on the worn-out language of a dead ideology repudiated nationwide in the 2008 elections.

Should the Democrats directly attack the media for its bias over healthcare reform, risking further unbalanced coverage? How can they present their message more effectively through alternative media sites?

As I’ve written before, the nation needs more national and local media outlets that don’t rely on the corporate rhetorical frames hard wired in the current mainstream press.

(The Walter Cronkite quote in the above image can be found here.)


Special Session For Oklahoma Legislature?

Image of Picasso painting

The OKPolicy Blog, which is part of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, is recommending the state be ready to call a special session of the legislature this fall as revenues continue to decline steeply.

The rationale beyond this argument is convincing. If the state budget will need large cuts, then the legislature could meet and mandate specific cuts. As it stands now, the governor and state treasurer can only make across-the-board cuts. Drastic cuts in education, health and social services could lead to more problems down the road.

State Treasurer Scott Meacham recently issued a report that show Oklahoma’s revenues continue to decline, opening up the likelihood for a revenue shortfall, which automatically forces across-the-board cuts. According to Meacham:

It appears very likely at this point that Fiscal Year 2010 revenues will be less than originally estimated by the tax commission. That means a revenue shortfall is probable. I will be meeting with state finance officials and Governor Henry to determine if it will be necessary to begin reducing allocations to state agencies to meet the anticipated revenue shortfall.

Oklahoma has fared better that many states during the recent national recession, but in the past few months revenues have taken a steep drop. One of the reasons is a decline of gross production tax collections on natural gas. Meanwhile, the federal stimulus plan helped stabilized this year’s budget, but collection projections appear to have been too optimistic.

The OKPolicy Blog also suggests using the Rainy Day Fund to prevent more drastic cuts, improving the Rainy Day Fund rules so the fund can be used “when we need it most” and adopting a five-year professional forecast of the state budget.

Oklahoma has been relatively fortunate during the national recession, but that could quickly change. Anyone who has endured some of the state’s financial slumps—for example, the oil bust in the early 1980s—knows that rational, long-term decisions are needed now to steer the state through a difficult time. The recommendations of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which generates the most thorough statistical information about the state budget and other issues, deserve careful consideration.


Profits Then People


It’s the right-wing ruse that’s been working for three decades. While the editorial page of The Oklahoman and other conservative media outlets hammer away at healthcare reform efforts with fear mongering, illogical slippery slope arguments and glaring omissions, one of the top health insurers is reporting huge profits.

This is from

UnitedHealth Group Inc., the top U.S. insurer by sales, said second-quarter profit more than doubled on higher premiums and growing Medicare enrollment, beating analysts’ estimates.

Note the phrase "higher premiums."

Meanwhile, this is from a recent editorial (“Rising tide: Health care plan swimming in doubt,” July 21, 2009) in The Oklahoman:

… Others representing affluent districts are worried constituents could pay taxes at a higher rate than they do in Sweden. State governors are balking, sensing Washington might shift significant costs to them.

Meanwhile, small-business owners see a proposed insurance mandate as job-killing. A number of analysts warn the public health insurance option Democrats are proposing could squeeze out private insurance, forcing millions of Americans into a government-run plan.

Note the lack of direct evidence for the “Sweden” claim or the “forcing millions of Americans into a government-run plan.” How much do people in Sweden pay in taxes? The editorial doesn’t say. Where is the “millions” figure coming from? In the end, these are simply unsubstantiated arguments designed to scare people about something that will actually improve their lives.

Those companies who make massive profits off human suffering and their supporters in the conservative media have long held a symbiotic relationship. The conservative media normalizes our outrageous healthcare system through sheer propagandist audacity. The problem, see, is not the 46 million people without health insurance or the poor medical outcomes of those with health insurance or rising co-pays or pre-existing conditions. The problem is that health insurance companies might not be able to double their profits and rich people could see a slight increase in taxes if healthcare reform is passed.

The tragedy here is how the right-wing ruse continues to work in the country’s political debate, even in the Obama era. Big business and the corporate media—really, the same thing—have for so long framed major political arguments in terms of commoditization that many people have adopted political positions that directly hurt them personally. This is an old argument, to be sure, but it needs to be repeated as the debate over healthcare reform becomes about people as commodities rather than people as humans in need of basic medical care.

Here are some ways to combat the propaganda:

(1) Organizations and individuals need to continue their efforts to fight the big-business rhetorical framing despite disappointing setbacks. This is a long-term project that may take at least a decade or more before more people understand how big business and the corporate media work together against their basic interests. Don’t give up the fight.

(2) Progressives need to create more media outlets, blogs, community blogs, and media watchdog organizations. The new, preogressive electronic media has and should support healthcare reform, energy independence, basic sustainability, fairer taxation, and environmental progress. Here’s how it can work.

(3) Democrats should continue to reach out to America’s diverse communities and grow their numbers. The demographics favor the Democrats. It’s difficult to see how Hispanic, African-American and young voters will suddenly turn to the Republican Party, which continues to cling to anachronistic views about the nation’s diverse social and cultural framework.

If healthcare reform doesn’t pass this year, then there’s always next year or the year after that. President Barack Obama has warned that if reform doesn’t get passed, it may take a generation before it does. Maybe so. But it won’t even pass in a generation if we don’t keep fighting now.