T.S. Eliot was wrong. August is the cruelest month. As we head toward next month's congressional face-off on a national healthcare bill, the news media are infatuated with town hall meetings. Over and over, we see angry citizens screaming about a Big Government takeover of the healthcare system, shouting that they will lose their insurance or be forced to give up their doctors and denouncing "death panels" that will euthanize old people.
Of course, none of this is even remotely true. These are all canards peddled by insurance companies terrified of losing their power and profits, by right-wing militants terrified of a victory for the president they hate and by the Republican Party, which has been commandeered by the insurance industry and the militants. But the lies have obviously had their effect. Recent polls show that support for healthcare reform -- reform that would insure more Americans, would force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions and prevent them from capriciously terminating coverage, and would provide competition to drive down costs -- is rapidly eroding.
Maybe Americans should know better. Maybe they shouldn't fall for the latest imbecilic propaganda and scare tactics. Maybe. But a citizenry is only as well-informed as the quality of information it receives. One can't expect Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin or the Republican Party or even the Democrats to provide serious, truthful assessments of a complex health plan. Truth has to come from somewhere else -- from a reliable, objective, trustworthy source.
That source should be the media, and there has been, in fact, some excellent coverage of healthcare, especially by our better newspapers and especially lately when the untruths have become a torrent, rousing reporters to provide a corrective. But overall, the coverage has not been exactly edifying. According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of the stories in its media sample last week were devoted to healthcare, but three-quarters of that coverage was either about legislative politics or the town halls. Tom Rosenstiel, who heads Pew's Center for Excellence in Journalism, said that if the healthcare debate is a potential teaching moment, that "moment is passing us by."
Television particularly has been remiss, even without mentioning cable news, which may be the greatest source of disinformation. ABC took some heat from Republicans for giving President Obama a prime-time forum to answer questions about healthcare in June. But as far as I can tell, it is the only prime-time special that any broadcast network has devoted to the healthcare debate. Even so, rather than merely host the president, ABC should have had a variety of experts and qualified reporters assessing exactly what the proposed bills will and will not do and who is and is not telling the truth -- a difficult but not impossible task.
To look at this in a larger context, journalists would no doubt say that it isn't really their job to ferret out the "truth." It is their job to report "facts." If Palin says that Obama intends to euthanize her child, they report it. If Limbaugh says that Obama's healthcare plan smacks of Nazism, they report it. And if riled citizens begin shouting down their representatives, they report it, and report it, and report it. The more noise and the bigger the controversy, the greater the coverage. This creates a situation in which not only is the truth subordinate to lies, but one in which shameless lies are actually privileged over reasoned debate.
Don't think the militants don't know this and take full advantage of it. They know that the media, especially the so-called liberal mainstream media -- which are hardly liberal if assessed honestly -- refrain from attempting to referee arguments for fear that they will be accused by the right of taking sides. So rather than be battered, the media -- and I am talking about the respectable media, not the carnival barkers on cable -- increasingly strive for the simplest sort of balance rather than real objectivity. They marshal facts, but they don't seek truth. They behave as if every argument must be heard and has equal merit, when some are simply specious. That is how global warming, WMD and "end of life" counseling have become part of silly reportorial ping-pong at best and badly misleading information at worst.