My new Think Again column is called “Fearmaking, Then and Now.” It was inspired by all the time I spend watching TCM and it’s here.
Kinky Friedman in Concert
I caught one of the twenty-five shows Kinky Friedman is doing in twenty-six days on his current “BiPolar” tour at the always raucous Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. It was my first Kinky show ever, but I assume most of them are like this one. He plays the old hits (“Sold American,” “They Sure Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus…,” “Asshole from El Paso”), tells some of the worst and most tasteless jokes imaginable, and reads from his latest book. That last part, which turned out to be about his dad, was actually deeply moving. And the shtick, well, it’s a matter of taste. It works better with lots of alcohol—I think Kinky thinks so too, since he was hawking tequila from the stage. Having had a little too much Grey Goose myself, I can’t remember the name of his opener, who was pretty good, but I do remember the woman called Dr. Love, who is apparently an alternative medicinist of some type, but also a terrific singer who accompanies herself on ukulele. She really should have an actual musical career of her own. (The song she sang, which she wrote, was pretty good too.) And yes, while they sure don’t make Jews like Kinky anymore, that’s OK: one is plenty. And he was a friend of Molly’s, so that’s good too. His site is here. (I’ll be seeing my new doppelgänger, Southside Johnny, there this weekend and the great David Bromberg the next.)
Now here’s Reed:
Batten Down the Hatches—the Obamacare Media Storm Is Coming
by Reed Richardson
It’s no secret—the media love a good hurricane.
OK, maybe members of the press don’t really love the whole devastation-and-potential-loss-of-life parts of it. (Although, at times, one kind of has to wonder about this guy.) Still, there’s no denying that a hurricane’s slow-to-develop, varying-in-intensity and stubbornly hard-to-predict nature is practically tailor-made for today’s Twitter-fied and event-packaged news cycles. What’s more, the drama surrounding a major storm making landfall has an almost refreshingly real, newsworthy quality to it in a media landscape otherwise awash in mindless manufactured debates and breathless obsessions over the minutiae of the day.
Of course, just because hurricanes, heat waves and blizzards lack any ideological affiliation doesn’t mean that weather and climate coverage can’t or shouldn’t be viewed through a political prism. Reporting on how our government prioritizes funding for disaster preparedness and plans for climate change are perfectly legitimate, even if the counterproductive and absurd solutions proposed by a certain political party seldom are. Sometimes, however, the public gets nakedly partisan spin—for example, the specious schoolyard logic behind recent right-wing news memes such as “Snowmageddon” and “Snowpocalypse.” (Funny how that same reasoning didn’t occasion wall-to-wall Fox News chyrons decrying “Droughtastations” and “Heat Tsunamis” this past spring.)
Right now, the American public is sitting in the quiet eye of another momentous oncoming storm: the Supreme Court’s imminent Obamacare ruling (which, according to the this Court-tracking blog, is likely to arrive next Monday or Thursday). And though this event is wholly man-made, the two-year build-up, swirling intensity of both supporters and opponents, and difficult-to-pinpoint outcome promises to unleash a similar hurricane-force level of news coverage.
I say "difficult to pinpoint," and it is—if you want to an excellent analysis of the many different scenarios that might play out, check out Jonathan Cohn. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t already have a good idea of what broad ideological grounds the Roberts Court’s ruling will land upon. (And while I appreciate the optimism, Nancy, I just don’t trust your vote-counting skills with these jokers.) For, if the oral arguments weren’t enough of a giveaway, and Scalia and Ginsburg’s public comments since then didn’t clear it up, the intellectual contortionism the former displays in his new book should all but end the uncertainty:
Justice Scalia writes, for instance, that he has little use for a central precedent the Obama administration has cited to justify the health care law under the Constitution’s commerce clause, Wickard v. Filburn.
Justice Scalia’s treatment of the Wickard case had been far more respectful in his judicial writings. In the book’s preface, he explains (referring to himself in the third person) that he “knows that there are some, and fears that there may be many, opinions that he has joined or written over the past 30 years that contradict what is written here.” Some inconsistencies can be explained by respect for precedent, he writes, others “because wisdom has come late.”
Methinks the “wisdom” he speaks of coming late here is something much more mundane. Since the 2005 Gonzalez v. Raich case, where Scalia came out as a firm believer in a strong commerce clause, the Court’s dynamic has tipped noticeably in favor of conservatives thanks to Justice Samuel Alito replacing the much more moderate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. And lest you think Scalia has any judicial self-respect left, he goes a step further, writing that he “does not swear that the opinions that he joins or writes in the future will comply with what is written here.” We’ve got the majority now, in other words, so you ain’t seen nothing yet.
That the news media make little to nothing of such blatant ideological signaling on the part of a Supreme Court justice is troubling. But not surprising, I guess. From the get-go, the press bungled the coverage of healthcare reform, focusing too much on process and horse-race stories, ignoring the policy aspects of the bill, and letting the right-wing distort and hijack the language of the debate. As this Pew Research Center study reminded us once again this week, it was not a proud moment for our nation’s press. From the original 2010 report:
A study of the concepts and rhetoric that found their way into the media narrative from June 2009 through March 2010 revealed that the opponents’ leading terms appeared almost twice as frequently (about 18,000 times) as the supporters’ top terms (about 11,000 times.) Boiled down to its essence, the opponents’ attack on big government resonated more in the media than the supporters’ attack on greedy insurance firms.
Forgive me if I’m not confident the press will do any better the second time around in avoiding superficial, who-wins/who-loses horse-race coverage, since the Court’s decision will come amidst a presidential campaign in full swing. (Here, at least, Politico is completely upfront about it.) I expect we’ll also see a lot of media and pundit hay being made about how a partial or total unraveling of the Affordable Care Act is in keeping with public opinion, in which a majority has consistently favored overturning the law since its passage two years ago. Likely lost in the "Obama is rebuked" deluge, however, will be a number of more nuanced metrics that don’t make for such an easy analysis of Obamacare and what Americans truly think about it. For instance:
That last point should be of particular interest to the press, because it is abundantly clear that the champions of overturning Obamacare still have no serious plan to replace it anytime soon. This is partly because Obamacare is, at its essence, a policy co-opted from Republicans. And it’s no doubt a bridge too far to hope the media would go back and dig into leftover Republican alternative proposals like “selling insurance across state lines” and “medical malpractice reform.” If they did, they might discover what these proposals really are: policy red herrings that, at best, would have a negligible effect on rising healthcare costs and, at worst, would send consumer and employer expenses spiraling upward (along with healthcare companies’ profits, I might add).
The simple but inconvenient truth is that, whatever happens next week, the GOP’s central plan for healthcare reform remains the same: do nothing. Indeed, for right-wing conservatives like Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock and others, the idea that we should return to the status quo, where a pre-existing condition could make you practically unemployable and wreck you financially, is no big deal.
“Does that employer have the right [not to offer coverage for cancer]? I would say yes they do if they want to keep their health care costs down but it also means it’s less likely you’re going to want to work here. If that employer wants to get the best employees coming in the door he’s going to offer the best insurance possible.”
That Mourdock later explains he wouldn't personally support such a move would be cold comfort to the millions of Americans who could once again find their lives permanently upended by an unforeseen health crisis. (Not for nothing, but Mourdock probably owes Rand Paul a first-edition copy of Atlas Shrugged or something for repurposing Paul’s faux-compassionate libertarian shtick on racial discrimination.) And what of those employees who make the stupid mistake of getting cancer after they're already working for a company that chooses not to cover it? Mourdock, conveniently, doesn’t say, but I suspect his answer would be heavy on soaring words like “freedom,” “personal responsibility” and “marketplace,” and light on more pedestrian terms like “forgoing treatment,” “skyrocketing emergency room expenses” and “medical bankruptcy.”
This is perhaps the most important role the press has to play next week and in the weeks that follow: explaining the very real impact that striking down part or all of Obamacare would have on the millions of actual Americans who don’t exist inside the Beltway bubble. Whether it’s college graduates who still can’t find a job and need insurance through their parents, or entrepreneurs who for the first time would be able to purchase care for their employees through a small-business health exchange, or those people (like me) with a loved one who has survived a serious illness such as cancer, which prompts an employer to eliminate that pricey coverage, the Court’s ruling next week deserves much more scrutiny than simply a craven list of political winners and losers and campaign-trail stories packed with dueling soundbites.
Successfully scalping Obama’s landmark achievement will have consequences that reach far beyond his latest standing in the polls or even his prospects in November, and the public needs to see what they are. To allow the notion that this Court ruling against Obamacare is a mere one-off would be tragic; it is, in fact, part of a larger orchestrated campaign by conservatives to redefine our country.
Sadly, I fear that on this most important point, the media will fail yet again to live up to their duty. But it doesn’t have to be this way—for all the hits and misses in their weather coverage, the one thing news organizations can’t be accused of is willfully ignoring the costly, destructive impact that natural disasters leave in their wake. There’s a lesson to be learned here for the rest of the news media's coverage. When the Roberts Court’s Obamacare hurricane finally hits next week, the press needs to stick with the story until all the initial hot air and flood of opinions are gone, to really see what’s left of our democracy.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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