Reliable Sources: ACA Coverage Stresses Politics, Ignores Policy

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Without Howie Kurtz, CNN's Reliable Sources is making small baby steps toward actual media criticism. I stress, however, that the baby steps are very, very small.

Take, for example, the irony of a serious panel of journalists having a serious discussion about how the Affordable Care Act has been covered recently, while flashing a banner across the bottom with the hashtag #HealthCareFail. Yeah, good job there, CNN.

While that banner was flashing they were having a discussion about Ed Schultz' remarks earlier in the week where he said the "mainstream media...wants Obamacare to fail." The ensuing discussion was a somewhat laughable mix of intellectual honesty and butt-covering.

But buried in the discussion is their admission that nearly all of the coverage has been focused on the politics of the rollout, rather than the policy itself. No discussion of what this law means to people with pre-existing conditions, or poor people who will now be eligible for Medicaid. No discussion of how medical bankruptcies might fade away, or how deeply this law will affect the working poor. Instead they all agreed the primary focus was on the politics, though Lynn Sweet was quick to add that oh yes, that policy aspect has been covered by the media over and over.

Not so much, Lynn.

This is by far my largest complaint about all of the media coverage of the ACA. If I see one more breathless headline about this being the end of Obama's second term, it will be too soon. Nothing they cover matters to me anymore because it's just the latest right-wing "hair on fire" meme rather than what the underlying policy means to Americans.

Maybe the best takeaway on this whole thing is the ending, where they agree that when the website glitches are fixed and people have health insurance, history will prove it to be a major policy advancement.

When that happens, "it vanishes from the front page."

That sums it up well, doesn't it?

SESNO: Errol, hang on a second. I want to roll in the Ed Schultz comment that he made the other day. I want you to respond to that, because this is right in your face.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ED SCHULTZ, MSNBC: The mainstream media I believe wants Obamacare to fail. They look for every negative number they can find. They're afraid to do a positive story because they're afraid that somebody might not watch.

The media is just cherry-picking the bad facts that are out there, repeating them over and over again, and in many cases they are making stuff up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LOUIS: I mean, my friend, Ed Schultz, in his own inimitable fashion, I think has a good point. I mean, he's basically --

SESNO: He has a good point. I mean, he wants Obama --

(CROSSTALK)

LOUIS: I mean, look, there are elements. You held up "The New York Post", which has inveighed against this from the time the concept even, you know, came out of Obama's mouth five years ago. So, his is not something -- so there is that.

But I think also -- I mean, there is a public service requirement here. I mean, we're talking about Gettysburg retraction. When Social Security came out, when Medicare came out, when Medicaid came out, there's a media responsibility to explain this to their readers, to their audience, to their viewers. This is important. It will help people.

SESNO: It's not sufficiently happened, Terry?

SMITH: No. I mean, the fact is there are many people who want Obamacare to fail. They are mostly on the other side of the aisle.

The media, you can't throw them in the same soup. I think, in fact, in this case, the president has a point, however, that headlines like that, disaster, you're labeling Obamacare before it has a chance.

SESNO: So, Lynn, let me lean on you, because you have been reporting on Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, call it what you want. And isn't it true that your stories like most of the stories certainly coming from this town are predominantly obsessed with the politics of it, criticism of it, what's not working opposed to explaining to people the policy and particulars?

SWEET: And which we've done. Let's look at the whole picture here. That's where I think President Obama was so -- he should have quit while he was ahead at that press conference. This is a story that local papers throughout the country have embrace, come October 1.

I bet almost every local outlet did something to try and educate people, go to the Web site, do this, do that. OK?

People, I think publications and reporters knew of obligations that you are talking about to help the public no matter your politics. And, yes, my columns have been doing, reflecting the story. Botched rollout.

SESNO: Very quickly.

BYERS: Politics and policy are both things that get covered. If you want policies, there are places to read about it. If you want politics, there are places to read about it. Politics of this are disastrous for the Obama White House and that's going to be covered. And it's going to be covered 24/7.

SESNO: The politics are disastrous. The technology has been disastrous. The signup has been disastrous so far.

BYERS: Right. If it gets better, the coverage will change.

LOUIS: And then it vanishes from the front page.

SWEET: And then history will judge it not this first month.

SESNO: We'll come back in 150 years and see if there are any apologies to make.

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