Health Care, the Media and Public Opinion


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










Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011).  He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?