Town Hall Protests Distorted By Irresponsible Media
By Steve Benen, Washington Monthly
Posted on September 3, 2009, Printed on September 4, 2009
UNDERSTANDING AUGUST.... At this point in the debate over health care reform, the Republicans' #1 talking point has nothing to do with "death panels" or "socialized medicine." It's all about the town-hall meetings lawmakers held over the August recess.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the "the public outcry" makes it "clear" the country doesn't support reform. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said if "town meetings are going to mean anything," he has no choice but to listen to protestors. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said the raucous events is all the evidence he needs: "I think the voice of the people have [sic] been heard quite loudly in the month of August."
There are all kinds of problems with this kind of thinking. For one thing, the screaming, right-wing critics of reform have been confused with nonsense, and don't even understand what they think they're opposed to. For another, they represent a small part of the population. For that matter, basing policy decisions on who can throw the biggest tantrum is never a good idea.
But E.J. Dionne Jr. today raises arguably the most important question of all: "[W]hat if our media-created impression of the meetings is wrong?"
There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television's point of view "boring") encounters between elected representatives and their constituents.
It's also clear that the anger that got so much attention largely reflects a fringe right-wing view opposed to all sorts of government programs most Americans support.... Over the past week, I've spoken with Democratic House members, most from highly contested districts, about what happened in their town halls. None would deny polls showing that the health-reform cause lost ground last month, but little of the probing civility that characterized so many of their forums was ever seen on television.
Lawmakers heard from plenty of skeptics -- and plenty of supporters. Rep. David Price (D) of North Carolina had someone from a television network come to his town-hall event and who told the lawmaker in advance, "Your meeting doesn't get covered unless it blows up." Price's audience was generally receptive to reform, so the network ignored it.
This, of course, is not journalism. When news outlets decide in advance that only anti-reform protestors are worthy of coverage, it's an example of the media dictating the discourse. Your opinion is only deemed newsworthy if it meets the expectations of those who decide what's newsworthy. In this case, Tea Baggers, LaRouche cultists, and assorted crazies were deemed important. Everyone else, not so much.
As Dionne concluded, "[T]he only citizens who commanded widespread media coverage last month were the right-wingers. And I bet you thought the media were 'liberal.'"
To base a historic public debate on what folks "learned" from cable news coverage of hand-picked town-hall events would be a ridiculous mistake.
Steve Benen is "blogger in chief" of the popular Washington Monthly online blog, Political Animal. His background includes publishing The Carpetbagger Report, and writing for a variety of publications, including Talking Points Memo, The American Prospect, the Huffington Post, and The Guardian. He has also appeared on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show," Air America Radio's "Sam Seder Show," and XM Radio's "POTUS '08."