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USA Today's 'Sicko' Debate

Is Michael Moore wrong...or maligned?

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
In its editorial, USA Today signaled a hope that Sicko "can stir a serious debate about the nation's ailing healthcare system." That sounds like a great idea--so why didn't the paper have one in its own pages?
6/29/07—On June 28, USA Today's editorial page offered a "debate" on Michael Moore's new film Sicko. But the paper "balanced" its own take critical of Moore with a piece written by a representative of the private health insurance industry.

Under the title "Today's Debate: Healthcare," readers saw the paper's view under the headline "Flawed 'Sicko' Sparks Debate." The paper wrote that Sicko "plays on emotions with anecdotes, stories and facts that aren't always in context, up-to-date or accurate. So it has to be taken for what it is: a provocateur's exposé of the worst of the American system, coupled with an uncritical, even naive, review of his preferred alternative."

The paper went on to argue:
"Is a single-payer, government-run system the answer? That's what Moore is pitching. Sicko applies rose-colored camera lenses to healthcare in Canada, Britain, France and Cuba. None of these, particularly Cuba, is as idyllic as portrayed. All require higher taxes to finance and are beset by inefficiencies."
While acknowledging that the U.S. healthcare system had problems, USA Today concluded by declaring that "Sicko doesn't have the answer."

The piece that followed--labeled "Opposing View"--could only be considered the other side of a "debate" in the sense that it was more critical of Moore. This was not a surprise, considering the author: Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans. Her argument against Moore echoed USA Today's in some key aspects: "Moore wants a government takeover," she wrote, and his film "relies on one-sided anecdotes." Ignagni also wrote that "Moore advocates a total government takeover of healthcare, sugarcoating what that would inevitably mean--including rationed care, long waits for care, underpaid doctors and delayed adoption of new technologies."

So USA Today's "debate" on healthcare policy went something like this: Michael Moore's film is misleading, inaccurate and naive, and his solution for healthcare problems is wrong; on the "other" side, Moore's work is one-sided and his solution would make healthcare in the United States much worse.

This restricted range of debate would seem to be in line with the paper's reporting on Moore's film. On June 22, USA Today's Richard Wolf wrote that "Sicko uses omission, exaggeration and cinematic sleight of hand to make its points. In criticizing politicians, insurers and drug makers, it says little about the high quality of U.S. care. In lauding Canada, Great Britain, France and Cuba, it largely avoids mention of the long lines and high taxes that accompany most government-run systems." The article closed with Ignagni complaining that the industry's perspective was not included in the film.

What's missing from USA Today's coverage, meanwhile, is a real sense of how poorly U.S. healthcare fares compared with other countries. While the editorial noted that the United States spends "more than any other country" to achieve lackluster results in terms of longevity, it doesn't point out that the U.S. spends twice as much or more on healthcare per capita as the countries that the paper calls "beset by inefficiencies." As for "higher taxes," a real rebuttal to USA Today's position might have noted that the U.S. government spends about as much on healthcare as a share of GDP as the Canadian, British and Cuban governments do, and France's government spends only somewhat more--even as the U.S.'s private spending on health dwarfs that of any developed country.

In its editorial, USA Today signaled a hope that Sicko "can stir a serious debate about the nation's ailing healthcare system." That sounds like a great idea--so why didn't the paper have one in its own pages?

ACTION: Contact USA Today and ask them why their June 28 healthcare "debate" over Michael Moore's Sicko was so unbalanced.


USA Today
Brent Jones, Reader Editor

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This story was published on June 30, 2007.