Russia v. Health Care (and Everything Else)

Russia v. Health Care (and Everything Else)

Russia v. Health Care (and Everything Else)

Vying for the media’s attention.


For the moment, at least, Trumpcare may actually be dead—thanks only in small part to the “liberal media,” which see Russia, and pretty much only Russia, from their TV studios. Cable news was there to catch the drama of Senator John McCain casting his decisive vote on the GOP’s “skinny repeal” bill early Friday morning, in effect saving health insurance for millions of people. But, even as the vote was approaching, the pundits were still talking excitedly about the latest scandal in Trumpland—to the point where Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CN) tweeted, at 10:27 pm:

Hey cable news: there’s actually REAL BREAKING NEWS affecting millions of Americans happening right now. Stop covering Scaramucci for a sec.

And that’s how it’s been for months. Although the American public cares deeply about the fate of health care—in a recent Bloomberg poll, people overwhelmingly named it the most important issue facing the nation—it simply hasn’t been able to compete with the Trump-Russia saga for the media’s attention.

“Russia is an easy, shiny thing to look at. It has intrigue; it has spies. It’s money; it’s behind the scenes; it’s what we don’t know,” Representative Joseph Crowley (D-NY), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told me. “I do think the media has done some good things,” he said, like “The New York Times digging into who was at that meeting with Donald Jr.” But the news media had less to do with Trumpcare’s downfall than Mitch McConnell’s miserable bills themselves. “It really died of its own weight,” Crowley said last week, referring to one of the Senate leader’s earlier, failed attempts to repeal Obamacare. “McConnell couldn’t buy off enough senators.”

Maybe Mitch was short on money. But the real reason Trumpcare went down was the effort by thousands of citizens who have been directly confronting their elected officials (or their staffs when they chicken out of town halls) across the country and in Washington, DC. While the networks have been diligently reporting on congressional votes, they’ve been missing in action where it counts—covering the resistance and actual people whose health, and often very lives, would be on the line if the ACA was overturned.

On Tuesday night, for instance, the ABC, CBS, and NBC news programs each covered the pivotal vote to start debate for several minutes, but did so by focusing almost entirely on McCain. He had flown back to DC just 11 days after undergoing surgery for brain cancer, and then voted with his party on the motion to proceed. Then, as each network showed, McCain gave a terrific speech damning the very kind of legislation he had just voted to advance. The networks either brushed quickly by or completely ignored the hundreds of protesters, including scores of activists with the disability-rights organization ADAPT, who were gathered nearby in the atrium of the Senate’s Hart office building, chanting, “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid!” At least 95 people, many in wheelchairs, were arrested.

ABC didn’t mention the demonstrators at all; CBS ran four seconds of the protests. NBC aired nine seconds of protesters off-camera shouting at McCain, as Peter Alexander put it, “attacking his vote as an effort to take health care away from millions of Americans just as he benefits from first-class care.” Nice, but short. And then NBC closed its program with two minutes on disabled people—just not those folks desperately fighting for the health care they need to survive. Instead, the network offered a feel-good story on a group of disabled mountain climbers.

Late on Thursday night, as a CNN panel discussion was getting into the weeds of the Senate’s arcane rules, activist Jonathan Tasini turned away from his fellow panelists and faced the camera to directly thank the activists who never stopped pressuring lawmakers. For months, Indivisible, MoveOn, National Nurses United, Planned Parenthood, Working Families Party, and Our Revolution, in addition to ADAPT and other groups, have been holding marches, rallies, sit-ins, and die-ins.

“Please Senator Toomey! Please don’t kill me!” protesters yelled last week outside Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s office. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Hundreds of people have been arrested, including a group of wheelchair-bound activists at an Ohio office of Senator Rob Portman three weeks ago, and disabled activists who took over Senator Cory Gardner’s Denver office for two days in late June. Some of these scenes made it onto cable TV, others only as far as the networks’ websites, but overall, coverage has been sparse compared to the round-the-clock alerts on the Trump-Russia fiasco.

“Both of these stories are vital,” Ben Wikler, the Washington, DC, director of MoveOn, told me, “but there are times when the latest inching forward of the Russian story can totally eclipse the fact that 15 million people can lose their right to health care from Medicaid alone, based on a vote that can happen in a handful of days.”

Every now and then, network TV will do a story on how the ACA saved someone’s life, or how an illness drove a middle-class family into bankruptcy. But the vast majority of the coverage has focused on a celebrity politician’s “discomfort” over the issue, or on the Capitol Hill “process”—whose arm is Mitch McConnell twisting to get which votes? Which Republicans will be cowed by Trump’s latest tweet?

In the first two weeks of June, out of a total of 15 hours of their nightly news programming, CBS, NBC, and ABC “gave just over three minutes of airtime combined to health care,” according to a Media Matters study. Cable news, it found, wasn’t much better: Out of a total of 150 hours of weekday programming, “MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News provided just under two combined hours of coverage to the Senate bill.” A study by the right-wing Media Research Center found that from May 17 to June 20, the three networks’ evening newscasts devoted 20 times more coverage to the Trump-Russia probe than to the health-care debate.

Of course, health-care coverage ebbs and flows along with the latest developments out of Washington. The authors of a new study examining health-care coverage on local TV news speculate that local stations have had more influence on senators, especially those from swing states, than the national outlets do.

To be clear, health care has it good compared to the stingier coverage of other pressing issues like, say, climate change or voter suppression. And print and online outlets are taking up some of the slack, often doing gripping work, like this report on Nevertheless, in separate June studies, Media Matters and Think Progress both found a dearth of health-care news on newspapers’ front pages, whether in red or in blue states.

We were really struggling to get health care in the headlines in early June,” Angel Padilla, policy director of Indivisible, told me. “We do think that Trump’s involvement with Russia, the Comey firing, and the chance that [Trump] might even fire [special counsel Robert] Mueller could be a constitutional crisis. But our priority as an organization, as a country, is that we have to be saving health care. And then we’ll get to Russia.” One big step, Padilla said, was gaining Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s cooperation “to shut down the Senate as much as possible to bring attention back to health care.”

June 22 was a turning point. That’s when McConnell finally unveiled the Senate GOP’s first health-care bill, after keeping it a big secret. Later that day, all broadcast and cable channels ran footage of wheelchair-bound people getting arrested and forcibly removed while protesting outside of his Senate office. (This was even more powerful if you were told, as few outlets bothered to do, that McConnell himself suffered severe polio as a child.)

“If it hadn’t been for the disability-rights activists and demonstrators announcing a Senate shutdown, we could have come to the eve of a final vote without the public being aware of the impending danger,” says MoveOn’s Wikler.

“The work of those activists has been so vital. They’re putting their bodies on the line. In the health-care fight, people with disabilities and parents of kids with disabilities are the heroes,” Wikler says. The Republicans’ proposed cuts to Medicaid threaten the ability of disabled people not only to live independently but to live at all, as this excellent Time story on “Trach Mommas” details.

The night of June 22, Rachel Maddow devoted her opening “A block” (usually reserved for a Russia-related story) to a 21-minute piece on ADAPT and the struggle for disability rights. How unusual is it for disability activists to get that much in-depth airtime? I asked Lawrence Carter-Long, the communications director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

“It’s unprecedented,” he said. “The last time I remember anything like that is the 1990 coverage of the ‘Capitol crawl,’ when activists got out of their wheelchairs and ascended the Capitol stairs in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” which passed that year.

After June 22, newscasts began mentioning health care a bit more, at least to note that the Senate Republicans were developing a bill in secret. Nevertheless, a subsequent Media Matters study looking at June 26 and June 27 found that the ratio of process stories to people stories was “staggering.” There was still little mention of the things that directly affect people, like potential cuts to mental-health benefits and special education or reversal of the bans on lifetime caps and denial of coverage for preexisting conditions.

Even when the specifics of McConnell’s second Senate bill were released on July 13, Media Matters found that TV news continued to focus “on the process surrounding the bill and largely ignor[ed] personal stories from those most affected.” The media-watchdog site did say that “MSNBC in particular provided more context and information about the bill than other networks.”

But still, why is this major story getting relatively so little play?

It may be in part because of corporate media’s fear of offending their major advertisers, like the pharmaceutical companies that drown news shows with remedies for medical problems ranging from erectile dysfunction to toenail fungus. There’s that handsome construction-site supervisor Frank, who tells us, “I take Movantik for OIC—opioid-induced constipation.” Exalting over his “Movantik moment,” he’s such a relaxed and, uh, regular guy that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the AstraZeneca product—and not the sort of long-term, expensive drug treatment that only the well-insured can afford—was the answer to the opioid crisis itself.

But we can also blame the media’s fixation on Russia. In fact, some inside the media are doing just that. Last month, CNN New Day cohost Alisyn Camerota broke in as her colleagues were dissecting a Trump tweet defending himself against charges of collusion with Russia. “Shame on us,” Camerota said. “I mean shame on us…. We’re the people devoting our hours of this morning to that instead of, say, something that affects a lot of people, which is health care and what the Republican plan is and why they’re doing it behind closed doors.”

Camerota complained of “Russia fatigue” again earlier this month. “You know,” she told the hosts of The Bernie and Sid Show on 77 WABC radio, “there are many mornings I come in and pray for other news to eclipse any sort of Russia thread.”

On the left some writers, like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and The Nation’s Stephen Cohen, find the media obsession over Russia foolish and dangerous. Rachel Maddow’s Russo-a-Rama in particular seems to either thrill progressives or infuriate them. At The Intercept, Aaron Maté wrote that 24/7 Russia coverage is obscuring Trump’s more destructive policies. He found that in the six-week period between February 20 and March 31 Maddow devoted 53 percent of her show’s airtime to Russia, “dwarf[ing] the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).”

The Trumps, in general, and Russia, in particular, have done wonders for MSNBC’s and Maddow’s ratings. “Donald Trump Jr. was very good to MSNBC last week (his father too),” TV Newser says of the week of July 17–21. “For the first time in the network’s 21-year history, MSNBC was the most-watched cable network during weekday prime (Monday-Friday 8-11 p.m.) in total viewers. MSNBC averaged 2.34 million viewers, which put it ahead of Fox News, Disney, USA and HGTV.” And Maddow had “the No. 1 cable news show of the week,” trailing only [entertainment channels] WWE and USA.

Maybe the Russia obsession is, as Taibbi has been warning, a trap. What if, at the end of the various investigations, there’s no collusion, no obstruction, and (though this is probably far-fetched) no financial crimes—nothing but a monster grifter with serious boundary issues? Wouldn’t that humiliate the Dems and the media, as much as Trump’s election itself did? We’d all look like, well, fakes.

That’s a risk, but an increasingly unlikely one, as long as Trump doesn’t ax Mueller. Trump’s Russia connection is an extremely urgent story, and it deserves a top spot in the news. But the media’s myopia comes at the cost of burying health care, an arguably far more urgent story. Not to mention that health care is the one issue that can give Dems a fighting chance to win back the House in 2018.

Trump’s travails make for great TV. But when everyday citizens confront their representatives directly, calling out their hypocrisies and cruelties, getting up in their face or down on their office floors—that’s empowering TV.

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