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The More You Watch, the Less You Know

Health Care, the Media and Public Opinion

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

People have a remarkable ability to believe what they want to believe, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  Recent media coverage of political debate on the “public option” for health care reform is a case in point.  A review of the nightly programs on the liberal MSNBC – including those of Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, and Chris Matthews – shows that all of these hosts cited public opinion as supportive of the Obama health care plan at some point during the week of July 15th to 21st.  Conversely, every pundit-based program on Fox News’s feature lineup – including those from Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Bret Baier, and Glenn Beck, cited public opinion as overwhelmingly opposed to the public option.

Critics of Obama’s public option have no difficulty distorting public opinion data to fit their own prejudices.  A prominent example is the July 19th Meet the Press, in which guest Michele Norris of NPR’s All Things Considered argued that “some 90 percent of the people who voted [in 2008] actually have health insurance and three-quarters of them are satisfied with what they got.  And there’s different ways of looking at that.  And one way to look at that is to say that perhaps there is not the public mandate for this that would dictate this sort of rush to legislation.”  Wall Street Journal editorial writer Paul Gigot agreed with Norris’ claim in the roundtable Meet the Press discussion, maintaining that Obama “is making the same mistake that he made on the stimulus…he’s governing from the left…That’s why you see these extraordinary costs and extraordinary taxes.  There is a better way to govern through the center, the way Bill Clinton did on welfare reform…But [Obama] won’t do that because he knows that will upset his political left.”

At Fox News, pundits wasted no time suggesting that the American people were actively opposed to government health care.  Alexis Glick of the Fox Business Network argued on the July 21st Hannity that “nobody really understands the urgency [on health care reform], and what the American people are now starting to distrust is that urgency.”  As mentioned above, Hannity, O’Reilly, Baier (from Special Report), and Beck’s programs all drew on public opinion, framing Americans as opposed to Obama’s health plan.  The only program host who took exception to this trend was Neil Cavuto (Your World with Neil Cavuto), as he conceded in his July 15th show that most Americans support a government health care initiative.  Cavuto’s admission was heavily qualified, however, as he framed Americans as selfish and unenlightened for wanting government health care: “most American people think that access to affordable health care is a desire.  And many argue that there’s nothing to argue there, because if someone else is going to pay for that up front [in this case through a tax on wealthier Americans], hey, sign me up, right?”  Cavuto followed up this comment with a declaration that “open season” had been declared “on the rich.”

It’s important to note that none of the above depictions from Fox and Meet the Press are fair representations of public opinion on health care.  In this case, as with so many others, it is difficult to deny Danny Schechter’s conclusion that, the more you watch of corporate news, the less you actually know about what’s going on in the world.  In the case of health care reform, Fox News blatantly misrepresents public opinion polling, framing Americans as fiercely opposed to a public option.

A more in depth exploration of public opinion reveals a picture that is radically different from that seen in the conservative media.  Polls conducted in recent years find consistent support for a national health care initiative.  A Gallup poll from November 11, 2007 found that 64 percent of Americans agreed with the claim that it “is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have health care coverage,” while only 33 percent felt it was not the government’s responsibility.  Public support for a government program remained steady (ranging between 58-69 percent from January 2000 through November of 2007).

As of July 15th, 2009, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 54 percent of Americans thought Obama could do a better job on health care than Republicans in Congress – while only 34 percent felt Republicans could do a better job.  The same poll found that 72 percent felt Obama was placing either the right amount of attention on health care or needed to focus more attention, as opposed to 25 percent who felt he was placing too much attention on the issue.  Between 55-64 percent either strongly or somewhat supported a government plan to compete with private insurers according to the Washington Post/ABC poll and polls by the USA Today/Gallup and CBS, while between 29-43 percent somewhat or strongly opposed such a plan.

It is certainly true, as Norris claimed on Meet the Press, that most insured Americans say they are happy with their health care plans.  The Gallup survey mentioned above consistently found that, from 2001 to 2007, between 71-81 percent of Americans said they were “satisfied” with the total cost of health care in this country,” with only 17-28 percent saying they were “dissatisfied.”  Additionally, between 65-71 percent rated their health care coverage as “excellent” or “good.”

To simply claim that Americans’ happiness with their health care plans is proof that people don’t want national health care, however, is grossly incompetent at best, and manipulative at worst.  If Norris were to provide an accurate depiction of public opinion, she would have expanded her use of data to a series of other questions.  She would have explained that, according to the very same Gallup poll mentioned above, 73 percent of Americans feel that health care is either in a “state of crisis” or has “major problems,” with only 26 percent saying there are “minor problems” or “no problems.”  Similarly, over 80 percent of Americans in the Gallup survey describe themselves as dissatisfied “with health care in the country as a whole.”  Some of the most recent data from the Pew Research Center similarly finds that, as of mid 2009, 71 percent feel that we need “fundamental changes,” or to have our health system “completely rebuilt,” as compared to 24 percent who only want “minor changes” in the system.

Many might wonder how it is that people can be happy with their health care programs and yet support a major transformation in favor of government health care.  The answer is no mystery: most Americans realize that our health care system has become a complete catastrophe for those 50 million Americans who have no health insurance.  These people are not included in the polling numbers cynically cited by Norris and others, who claim that three-quarters of Americans are happy with their health care plans.  The major caveat here is that the three-quarters cited by Norris entails only those Americans who already have health insurance, and excludes those cut out of basic care.  Only someone with an active contempt for democracy would leave these people out of their discussion of public opinion, as Norris and other opponents of reform are all too happy to do.  From their perspective, why focus on the poor at all?  The disadvantaged are simply not a real concern for those affluent few who dominate much of our media.

If pundits in the conservative media want to deal with the issue of health care honestly and with transparency, they should stress a number of facts: 1. Most Americans strongly support major reforms in our health care system, and wish to see a government sponsored health care program that will provide for the poor and disadvantaged.  2. Strong resistance does exist to government health care, but only amongst a small, loud minority.  My own statistical analysis of Pew Research Center data finds that older and wealthier Americans, conservatives, and men are more likely to oppose government sponsored health care, whereas younger and poorer Americans, liberals, and women are more likely to support it.  These trends shouldn’t be surprising, since older Americans are traditionally much better covered than younger Americans due to the Medicare program.  Relative affluence for the elderly, sadly, translates into less sympathy for less well off, younger Americans who are less well covered.  Wealthy individuals are likely to oppose government health care since they do not need to rely on the public option, and since it will likely cost them disproportionately more in taxes.  Finally, men are less likely to support government health care than women in light of the fact that women disproportionately suffer under the feminization of poverty, and have a more difficult time providing for themselves and their families.

The debate over health care in this country, contrary to the deception at NBC and Fox News, is not between the masses who oppose universal health care and an Obama administration that is “governing from the left” in opposition to the public will.  The real conflict is between those privileged few Americans who are desensitized and unsympathetic to the demands of the masses of people who are overwhelmingly supportive of national health care.  Sadly, in order to understand this basic fact, we must first come to the realization that corporate media often misinform the public about vital political issues.  Without a steady dose of alternative media exposure, it will remain the case that, the more you watch of mainstream news, the less you know.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010).  He can be reached at adimagg@ilstu.edu