Quantcast

The Gums of August: How Angry Town Halls Mesmerize the Media and Distort Debate | The Nation

  •  
Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The Gums of August: How Angry Town Halls Mesmerize the Media and Distort Debate


Dan Thompson, 51, of Canton, Michigan speaks out against health care reform during a town hall meeting. (AP Photo/Detroit Free Press, Kimberly P. Mitchell)

My new Think Again column is “How to ‘Ignore’ and Obsess About a Story Simultaneously.” An alternate title is “The Wingnut Benghazi Fixation and What it Means about Media Bias.”

I wanted to give two quick shout-outs before turning over to Reed. One is to a film I saw at Lincoln Center recently, called “Born in Chicago,” about the largely Jewish local boys who hooked up with Muddy, Wolf, Otis, etc and went on to obscurity. Everybody knows about the British/Chess connection, but since the deaths of Paul Butterfield and the enormously charismatic Michael Bloomfield, these guys have been largely forgotten. The screening I saw had a panel hosted by my buddy Bob Merlis, and featured Marshall Chess and Barry Goldberg, who after disappearing for a long time, has recently resurfaced musically with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd for a band called The Ride. Golberg was also instrumental in getting this wonderful documentary made and I hope it screens far and wide. It really is a lost history. There was a nice Times write up here.  And you can read more about Bloomfield and Goldberg in Ben Sidran’s terrific and tragically obscure, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.

Also, there’s a comic book about John Lewis, the Congressman/civil rights leader, not the MJQ guy. It’s kind of a crazy idea. Well, ok, call it a “graphic novel.” It’s called “March: Book One,”  and it’s published by the very cute Top Shelf Productions, and you can read about it here.

Now here, (finally) is Reed:

The Gums of August: How Angry Town Halls Mesmerize the Media and Distort Debate
by Reed Richardson

Welcome to the yelling season.

Every year, Congress goes into recess in late summer and members trundle back home to their districts and states for a break from their not-so-grueling three-day work weeks in Washington. Lately, however, even these notional vacations have proven to be anything but. Thanks to a small, vocal minority, the longstanding Congressional tradition of holding informative, respectful town halls during August has morphed into a much coarser ritual, one where US Representatives and Senators are routinely targeted for bilious rants and incoherent ramblings. The underlying intent of all this bumping of gums and gnashing of teeth isn’t engaged discourse; it’s disruptive grandstanding.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to trot out a defense of elitist thought masquerading as yet another Beltway centrist call for more civility. And I readily admit that members of Congress increasingly exist in a comfortably cloistered bubble, disconnected from the hard reality of their constituents. This is partly due to the incessant time demands of campaigning and fundraising, but partly it’s the result of simple arithmetic. On average, each member of the House represents roughly 650,000 people today, an increase of nearly 58 percent from 1960, when the median Congressional district population was around 412,000. So, any face-to-face time between members and the citizens they represent should be encouraged. But it is exactly because this democratic give-and-take is so precious that those who merely want to demagogue and dominate the process are such a problem. And, unfortunately, the media only makes it worse.

This enabling behavior by the press can be explained, if not excused. August has long been considered a notoriously slow period for political news (although, to be fair, the idea is probably oversold). So, any news peg that the media can find—no matter how tenuous—soon suffices for hanging an entire narrative upon. Thus, a press corps habitually trained to view every story through the crude lens of partisan confrontation can’t help but make rowdy town halls a staple of slow summer news coverage. For cable TV news—with its insatiable 24/7 content appetite—a steady stream of free, user-submitted videos featuring angry citizens berating their Congressman is practically a godsend. Left unchecked, however, a self-reinforcing loop of selection bias can take hold and distort the truth. Pretty soon, the town hall media coverage can makes it seem as if everyone in the country is mad at the government.

This was precisely the media strategy followed in August 2009 by Tea Party conservatives, some of whom were operating under direction of memos like this, which encouraged town hall attendees to “rock-the-boat” and “yell back [at members of Congress] and have someone else follow up with a shout out.” Often, their behavior didn’t stop at rhetorically blasting the president’s healthcare reform bill, aka Obamacare; at times, the opposition escalated to physically threats or assaults on some of its supporters. Since conservatives appear intent on repeating many of these tactics this summer—hence, the Atlantic Wire’s headline this week: “The Town Hall Outrage Over Obamacare Has Begun”—it’s worth revisiting, for reference, the media debacle from four years ago.

And what a debacle it was, as this Pew Research study from last year concluded. It found that nearly half—49%—of the overall news coverage of the healthcare reform debate in 2009–10 focused solely on the politics and process of reform. (Less than a quarter involved actual policy analysis.) This obsession with the theater surrounding the bill effectively set the conditions for a distorted alternate reality. Once the right wing began its angry town halls campaign, it all came to fruition.

In this parallel media universe, the only rational response to Obamacare was to vent one’s spleen at government officials, even though public opinion was evenly split in August 2009. For example, when the president encountered a respectful, reasoned town hall audience in New Hampshire in mid-August of that year, Fox News quickly cut away. The network's not-so-subtle suggestion: the lack of venom directed Obama's way could only be explained by some sort of propaganda effort by the White House. Then, in a moment of unrestrained id, Fox News anchor Trace Gallagher perfectly crystallized the broader media’s bias for fireworks: “Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we will bring it to you here.”

Just how successfully were conservatives in getting the media to play along with their anger? A separate 2010 Pew Study that found the opponents of healthcare reform handily won the messaging war, and that a big driver of their larger success was forged in the town hall cauldrons of August:

One example of this resonant rhetoric was the emergence of the term ‘death panels’ in August 2009. That was the month when anger boiled over in the health care debate. The fiery town hall protests, featuring citizens yelling at politicians, proved irresistible to the press, and accounted for nearly one-quarter of all the health care coverage that month.

This is the other important point about the trap of the angry-town-hall news meme. Not only does it misrepresent public opinion, it often misinforms the public by airing and then repeating falsehoods ad nauseam. Indeed, to borrow a term from the national security debate right now, town halls became a popular vector for injecting lies about Obamacare into the political discourse. While some in the media did yeoman’s work trying to debunk town hall myths about “death panels,” to expect cable news anchors to follow-up with a correction after each and every replay of someone spouting baseless rumors or Republican talking points is unbounded optimism. When a US Senator like Chuck Grassley all but endorses the same “death panels” lie, well, that’s a bridge too far for almost anyone in the establishment media to cross. And lest you think this kind of lie, once loosed, has a finite shelf life, think again. Just this week, “death panels” returned, zombie-like, to haunt a headline in a story from The Hill.

That’s where we are this August, contemplating a right-wing-driven media blitz over “defunding Obamacare,” which is essentially the same bitter, misinformed debate we suffered through four years ago. Certainly, Sean Hannity sounds like he’s still stuck in 2009. This, despite the fact that a majority of Americans now disagree with his entrenched obstructionism and say Republicans should stop trying to block the law’s implementation.

There are some rays of hope, however. If there’s one thing the press can’t abide, it’s being bored and getting stuck covering the same old shtick. Increasingly, the establishment media seems to have figured out the right wing is mostly just offering up the political equivalent of reruns this summer. About the only new twist on this saga is that a fair share of August’s conservative anger looks like it will be directed inward, at Republicans who aren’t reflexively willing to sabotage the government and derail the economy just to spite the president.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Nevertheless, right-wing PAC Heritage Action will be rolling out a nine-city, traveling twin-bill town hall focused on defunding Obamacare later this month. Featuring the latest winner of the conservative sinecure lottery, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, alongside the reactionary heartthrob-du-jour, Senator Ted Cruz, this crackpot line-up is readymade for jokes about black satin tour jackets emblazoned with “DeMint-Ted” across the back. A more appropriate name for this tour, though, might be the “Death of Irony,” especially after reading this shameless shovelful of jus' folks manure from DeMint, which stops just short of calling for a boy’s band right here in River City:

I’m thrilled to be joining Heritage Action and to travel across the country to spend time with real Americans rather than Washington politicians. We want to hear directly from people in local communities who often suffer from Washington’s out-of-touch policies. Fortunately, Washington doesn’t have to win.

Left unsaid by DeMint: the awkward reality that his shiny, seven-figure income derives solely from being a former Washington politician who can whisper sweet nothings into the ear of current Washington politicians. Long after the shouting of this August’s right-wing faux populism has faded away, it will be his voice, and other insiders like him, that really matter in our democracy. And until the press figures that out, any talk of real change is just noise.   

Don CooperShamrock, Texas
Thoroughly enjoyed the piece about the corporate media's selective skepticism. Reed Richardson did good work on this. As a former editor-cartoonist-columnist, I was constantly astounded by the double-standard showed by the so-called objective press. For example, President Obama is nitpicked to death, while G.W. Bush's bullshit was taken at face value. Also, I am sick of seeing how networks still maintain a 4-1 margin of Republicans over Democrats on the Sunday talk shows. If, by some chance, a Democrat gets some air time, viewers can expect to see "balance" by bringing on a Republican or two. Doesn't happen in reverse—and, as far as I've been able to tell, Bernie Sanders is persona non grata on the Sunday talk shows.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.