Media Mayhem: Emergency surgery
A botched message on health insurance reform offers lessons in the effort to sell climate change legislation.
Mon, Sep 07, 2009 at 05:55 AM
(Photo: Associated Press/Alex Brandon)
It’s got to be more difficult than it looks. Still, I’m puzzled that the White House is losing the message war over health insurance reform.
And worried. Can an Obama administration that fails to sell its solution to a crisis that’s already hitting almost every American family sell its solution to climate change — a calamity that won’t be fully felt for a generation?
Before the health insurance debate went into full swing last spring, only 29 percent of Americans told a ABC/Washington Post poll they disapproved of “the way Obama is handling health care.” Now, that number has nearly doubled, to 50 percent. On today’s polarized political terrain, opposition from half the populace provides plenty of cover for special interests to block action.
A friend of mine who once served as press secretary to a governor defends the White House, even though it’s lost ground in the battle for hearts and minds. My friend once lived in the trenches. He knows how difficult it can be to steer a debate when the opposition won’t cooperate. He argues that President Obama and his allies couldn’t have expected the onslaught of town-hall craziness and paranoia that swept up August.
For my response to that, allow me to paraphrase the question posed by an eloquent, soft-spoken statesman in the midst of A health insurance town hall meeting: What planet are you from? Have you listened just once since January to talk radio or watched Fox News? Did you expect anything but crazy, hateful myth-spinning from defeated, angry right-wingers? And is it any surprise at all that, in order to goad on the crazies, the insurance industry has thrown a book full of dirty tricks into the public square?
The content of the tactics and lies may not have been foreseeable. Reform advocates surely couldn’t have known that the flagship of canards this time around would be “death panels,” just as John Kerry didn’t know the “Swift Boaters” would torpedo his presidential ambitions by transforming his Vietnam War heroism into tall tales of cowardice and treason.
But the nature of the attack shouldn’t have been surprising. In American politics, sensational lies have always been more exciting than policy details. And coming up with a fib always has been easier than hewing faithfully to the truth. Joe McCarthy built his own career and ruined thousands of others on parading such easy, sensational lies before the media.
Now, however, the mainstream media seems more susceptible to giving sensational lies credence. And partisans on cable, talk radio and the Internet are more effective at amplifying them.
What I don’t get is the reformists’ response -- mundane defensiveness, mainly revolving around the undeniably true and unrelentingly boring complaint that “special interests” are trying to “block reform” with “lies and exaggerations.”
Which storyline is more compelling? News reports over and over again of angry, real people yelling at 80-year-old senators or an ad with a narrator’s voice warning that the same old special interests are trying to block reform. One is palpable, immediate and in the language used by angry, everyday people; the other is abstract, vague and in the language of political activists and Washington insiders.
The puzzle in this drama is that health insurance reformers have an incredible story to tell -- and an endless cast to tell it. Thousands of victims of our health insurance system would love to inundate the airwaves with their personal, heart-wrenching and true tales: The parents of the pregnant teen who died when she was turned out from an emergency room; the family that lost its house because, once the youngest child got sick, the insurance company dropped them from coverage; the hard-working middle-class citizen who is dying right now because his insurer denied him proper cancer treatment.
A low-budget You Tube video channel by the California Nurses Association tells just a few of these compelling stories. Real people. Real tragedies. So why isn’t the White House also enlisting ordinary people to tell sensational true stories on commercial after commercial, on cable news show after cable news show, at press conferences, at rallies?
The health insurance debate debacle doesn’t bode well for the next big issue that the nation must address. Climate change deniers already are turning up the heat, and they’ve got pretty much the same coalition: The right-wing media, the angry tea-partiers who serve as their foot soldiers and the richly funded special interests that will do anything to protect the status quo.
They’ll try to hook the masses onto whatever myth proves popular: Grant-hungry scientists invented climate change so they could feed off the government gravy train. Cap-and-trade is a huge, stealth tax hike on middle-class families. Al Gore and his Wall Street buddies are just trying to cash in on investments. All thoroughly discredited stories; all difficult to combat with a truth that’s not so simple.
Unlike the health insurance reformers -- who’ve left their best stories on the shelf -- climate change reformers don’t have a lot heart-wrenching stories to tell ... yet. The impact of climate change already may be seen in thawing Arctic tundra, exhausted polar bears and a Papua New Guinea tribe being forced to relocate from its ancestral home. But such anecdotes don’t pack the populist punch of a dying American cancer patient staring straight into the camera.
Still, I’m optimistic. I think health insurance reform will pass, although it’s likely to be weaker than it should be. The issue’s too urgent to too many interests for Congress to fail to take action.
But the best outcome from the dreadful politics of August may turn out to be that the White House communications team gets its house in order. If they’re focused and creative, maybe they’ll find a powerful story to tell about climate change. I’m standing by the phone to offer my own bit of advice: Drill home the message that there’s an opportunity to rebuild the American dream by making a transition to clean energy. That may not pack the emotional punch of healthcare horrors, but it could be effective for this particular battle.
If that doesn’t work, another friend of mine suggested an emotionally powerful story tailor-made for climate change: Just claim that we built a time machine, carried the camera into the future and taped our grandchildren cursing us as they wallowed in malaria infested swamps on the National Mall in Washington. Then, run the video over and over again.
Maybe, that’ll swing the tea partiers.