Silencing supporters of single-payer, or Medicare for All, is a media staple, but PBS's Frontline found a new way to do that on the April 13 special Obama's Deal--by selectively editing an interview with a single-payer advocate and footage of single-payer protesters to make them appear to be activists for a public option instead.
The public option proposal would have offered a government-run health insurance program to some individuals as an alternative to mandatory private health insurance. Not only is this not the same thing as Medicare for All, it's an idea many single-payer advocates actually opposed, arguing that it would leave the insurance industry intact as dominant players in the healthcare business (PNHP.org, 7/20/09).
In the report, Frontline explained that insurance industry lobbyists pushed a bill in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Max Baucus (D.-Montana) "that would include the mandate to buy insurance and kill the public option." That "didn't sit well with the president's liberal supporters," the Frontline narrator told viewers. After a clip from public-option supporter Howard Dean, a full minute and a half focused on protests: "The left counterattacked in May.... Liberal outrage arrived in Baucus' own hearing room as healthcare activists, one after another, shouted him down." Several of these protesters are seen in action, with a clip of an interview with Margaret Flowers of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) saying that these were members of her group shut out of the hearings.
Now, Flowers and PNHP are leading single-payer advocates--but you'd never learn that from watching the Frontline program, which never mentions the single-payer concept. Instead, viewers were left to assume that Flowers and the protesters were public-option proponents, since that was the only progressive proposal that had been discussed. As Flowers explained (Consortium News, 4/15/10):
When the host, Mr. [Michael] Kirk, interviewed me for Obama's Deal, we spoke extensively of the single-payer movement and my arrest with other single-payer advocates in the Senate Finance Committee last May. However, our action in Senate Finance was then misidentified as "those on the left" who led a "counterattack" because of "liberal outrage" at being excluded.
Viewers saw more footage of protesters being handcuffed and led away, with an unidentified voiceover from Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! describing the arrests, and finally a voice was heard saying: "This option cannot be part of the discussion at a Senate hearing? Now, I think that's wrong."
The audience could only conclude that "this option" referred to the public option, but this conclusion would be incorrect; this voice was actually MSNBC host Ed Schultz, a single-payer supporter, and a fuller version of his quote (5/7/09) would have made it clear that he was complaining about single-payer being excluded from the hearing:
Now, let me explain single-payer for just a minute. The money comes from one source, the government. Now, you and I pay taxes, OK. The government pays the bill. It's that simple. Patients are not caught in the middle between doctors and insurance companies, no game-playing here. There's no middleman. You know? There's no decision-makers between you and your doctor. It's a clean deal.
So what Chairman Baucus has decided, this option cannot be part of the discussion at a Senate hearing? Now, I think that's wrong. I don't think it's fair.
Frontline's editors responded to Flowers' complaints, saying that they "understand the frustration of Dr. Flowers and others in what she calls the 'single-payer movement,'" but that "it's the work of journalism to report widely on a topic, then find the sharpest focus for the reporting, unfortunately leaving out much strong material along the way to shaping the clearest communication possible in the time or space allowed."
The statement also argued that
the section that included Dr. Flowers was focused on the power of the insurance lobby and showed how activists like Dr. Flowers were excluded from the debate over the bill. The protesters themselves said they were protesting the fact that they had been excluded from the debate, so we believe we presented the protests in the proper context.
But in Frontline's presentation, "activists like Dr. Flowers"--that is, single-payer advocates--didn't even exist. Having itself excluded their perspective from the debate--and even misrepresented them as supporters of a position that many of them actually oppose--there's some irony in Frontline claiming to have put this exclusion in the "proper context."
This is not the first time that Frontline has decided that a conversation about healthcare reform should exclude single-payer (FAIR Action Alert, 4/7/09). The March 31, 2009, Frontline special Sick Around America avoided discussions of national healthcare plans. This omission led Frontline correspondent T.R. Reid--who had hosted a previous Frontline special (4/15/08) that examined various public healthcare models--to withdraw from the project.
When Frontline pushed single-payer out of the debate last year, PBS ombud Michael Getler (4/10/09) weighed in on the side of critics, calling it a "missed opportunity." Getler today (4/23/10) published a column about the latest Frontline omissions, once again finding that ignoring a popular policy like single-payer is problematic:
It seems to me that to ignore something that was out there and popular with millions of people and thousands of healthcare professionals, but not really on the table, was a mistake. Although obviously tight on time, the producers should have found 30 seconds to take this into account, because many Americans support it, yet the deal makers never mention it, nor is the politics of discarding it addressed.
We're thankful that Getler has once again taken this view and encouraged a more inclusive discussion of healthcare on PBS. However, his criticism misses the critical journalistic fact that single-payer advocates were not only marginalized by Frontline--they were misrepresented.
Tell Frontline that their recent program Obama's Deal should have accurately explained the views of single-payer advocates.
You may also want to write to PBS ombud Michael Getler (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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This story was published on April 24, 2010.