Media’s Misdirected Coverage of Harrowing Senate Vote On Health Care

The Senate ended its latest health care repeal effort with a late night vote on a “skinny repeal” bill written yesterday. Major news networks are covering the political fallout of the vote. But they have failed to fully acknowledge the very real consequences that millions would have faced if even one Senator had voted a different way.

 

The Coverage

Major news organizations have been slow to track healthcare since this latest attempt emerged late last week. Yesterday was no different. White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci garnered more coverage among network television stations than healthcare.

Much of the debate this week highlighted the stark contrast between the politics and the policy. Republicans voted for the bill while acknowledging that they did not want it to become law. They treated the vote as an opinion survey. Not as something that would move closer to becoming law.

The New York Times has been the news organization most focused on health care coverage this week. They framed the fallout of last night’s vote in political terms. Their lede is written in a purely political scoreboard framework:

“The Senate in the early hours of Friday morning rejected a new, scaled-down Republican plan to repeal pars of the Affordable Care Act, derailing the Republicans’ seven-year campaign to dismantle President Barack Obama’s signature health care law and dealing a huge political setback to President Trump.”

After a one sentence paragraph citing Senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski as key votes, the story returns to the political consequences.

“The 49-to-51 vote was also a humiliating setback for the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has nurtured his reputation as a master tactician and spent the last three months trying to devise a repeal bill that could win support from members of his caucus.”

Notice that the story has not mentioned the additional 15 million people who would lose insurance under last night’s skinny repeal. Nor does it mention that premiums would increase 20%. Both of those facts are mentioned deeper in the article.

This is significant because the New York Times appears to be accepting the Senate premise that this vote was divorced from its consequences. By casting the vote in political terms, rather than how the repeal would impact families, hospitals, and insurance markets, readers need to make an additional mental leap on their own to infer the consequences. Many don’t.

 

The Washington Post follows the same pattern. Their headline is, “Senate rejects health-care law repeal; Trump, GOP leaders suffer major setback.” The lede describes the vote as a “dramatic failure” for Republicans.

The Washington Post covers some facts and policy points from the bill. However, it does not mention the CBO scoring that highlighted the harm the bill would do to people.

 

CNN is focusing on an even narrower picture in their headline story. They have chosen to focus on Senator McCain and his dramatic return to the Senate.

The lede:

Shortly before Sen. John McCain entered the Senate chamber in the wee hours of Friday morning, reporters wanted to know how he’d vote.

He instructed them to “watch the show.”

Again – turning this into a political drama at the expense of people wondering if they would lose their health insurance.

 

Let’s wrap up with Fox News. They gave scant coverage to any health care news this week. To their credit, the network was honed in on tracking the unfolding vote last night. But for much of the week, health care has been ignored or relegated to the lower sections of their page amidst the list of bullet point news articles.

Fox News front page Skinny Repeal 7.28.17

(7.28.17 – red circle edit via Decoder)

This morning, their headline stories have already moved on to the next news cycle. “MOOCH VS. REINCE” is the primary story.

Fox has three stories on health care this morning:

3 Republicans vote ‘no’ as Obamacare fix sinks” – note the focus on the politics. Also see how the vote was framed as an “Obamacare fix” when the facts show the bill last night would not fix anything.

McCain plays pivotal role in blocking ‘skinny repeal’” – Another McCain/maverick story similar to CNN coverage.

And “Couple jump to their deaths because they can’t afford health care” – The Decoder advocates for media to focus on the people affected but policy, but this article is sensationalism clickbait. A better written story would provide some background on the unnamed individuals in the article. It would have mentioned other factors such as mental illness playing a role in the decision. At the least, it would have given some context to the deeply flawed health insurance industry.

By grouping the third story with the repeal stories, it is an implicit insinuation that the two are linked.

 

Decoding:

What led us through a harrowing week in the Senate was a focus on politics and not on policy. Senator Mitch McConnell upended procedure because it was the only way to move things forward. Republicans tried to balance moving the bill forward with accepting that the legislation did not make health insurance more affordable to more people.

The beneficiaries under this model were limited. Wealthy individuals and companies stood to benefit from tax breaks included in some, but not all, of the amendments proposed this week. Other beneficiaries were Senate Republicans where “Obamacare” was deeply unpopular due to its attachment to President Obama.

On the other hand, the list of people who would be hurt by this legislation was much longer, and often unmentioned. The American Medical Association, the AARP, the health Insurance industry, the millions of people that would be uninsured, the millions more that would face additional costs in premiums and Democrats.

So consider:

1. Do you agree the primary goal should be to lower health care costs? This is the underlying premise of the debate. But do you believe costs should be lowered if it means inviting single payer in? Should costs be lowered if it means transforming a major role of government? Should the private market greatly expand and incur the risk that costs will only go down when millions of people are barred from entering due to coverage limitations?

2. What can be done to lower health care costs? This was one topic scarcely debated this week and not covered in the media. Is it single payer? Listen to politicians who at least attempt to define a solution.

3. Is there evidence that increased market forces will lower costs? This is important to pay attention to because it strikes at the ideological divide in government. Republicans are traditional champions of the insurance exchanges. But the exchanges are the piece of health care that is failing more than any other part of the ACA and hurting Americans the most.

4. What solutions will Democrats propose? Very few have uttered the words “single payer.” Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have become very popular among liberals for venturing to do so. Here is a quick FAQ to get acquainted with the words we will be hearing a lot more of in the coming years. Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winning economist, has been arguing for single payer for over a decade.

 

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