By Michael Corcoran
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR.org, Dec. 19, 2016
Members of the GOP leadership were likely jubilant when they read the New York Times (12/15/16) and saw the following headline: “GOP Plans to Repeal Health Law with ‘Universal Access.’”
The Times’ decision to include the words “universal,” “health” and “plan” in the headline was extremely misleading and irresponsible. It gave readers the distinct—and deceptive—impression that Republicans have something resembling a “universal” health plan, and will use it to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
It appears that the same corporate media who misled us into the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (Extra!, 4/10) are now misleading us out of it—and the Times’ reporting on the GOP’s health care agenda is a particularly egregious example of this.
Republicans haven’t determined what, if any, plan will be enacted to “replace” the ACA after it is repealed. Donald Trump’s brief 7-point campaign proposal (3/16) does not even contain the word “universal.” There are several other conservative proposals from prominent organizations and politicians, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (6/22/16), the Cato Institute (7/4/12), the Heritage Foundation (10/13, 11/22/16) and various legislative efforts vetoed by President Obama (Health Affairs, 1/9/16). There is nothing in any of these plans approaching universality—not as a goal, a result or a guiding principal.
The phrase “universal access” sounds nice, but is a meaningless slogan clearly aimed to confuse the status quo, in which healthcare is a commodity, with everyone actually being able to get the medical treatment they need. “Our goal here is to make sure that everybody can buy coverage or find coverage if they choose to,” one anonymous GOP aide told the Times (12/15/16). Of course, the right to “buy coverage” has never been in question—the more than 30 million Americans who currently lack insurance can “choose” to buy coverage today. And when that number swells by another 20 million or so, which the Congressional Budget Office (12/3/15) predicts will happen if the ACA is repealed, they will all be allowed to buy coverage then too. Using this flawed logic, the Times could just as well amplify nonexistent GOP plans to provide “universal access” to housing, childcare and transportation, too.
But not a single critic was quoted in the Times article. The only quotes were from the anonymous Republican aide, Paul Ryan and a federal judge who ruled against some ACA subsidies. Not even a token response from the Democratic leadership was included, let alone an independent policy expert or advocate for true universal care. This omission occurs despite the article being 853 words and 20 paragraphs long—25 column inches, to use old print vernacular, and not a solitary clause devoted to a critical response.
But misleading coverage from the dominant newspaper is hardly surprising on this topic. In addition to spreading nonsensical and unchallenged arguments made by Republicans, major media outlets also routinely rely on current or former industry executives as sources or op-ed contributors.
Politico, for instance, has relied on Heritage Foundation health analyst and former Pfizer executive Ed Haismaier as their go-to expert. Haismaier, who co-authored the Heritage repeal plan, has been cited or mentioned in 22 Politico articles since the passage of the ACA, including six times in November 2016. This included more than 20 minutes in a Politico podcast (11/28/16). This, it would turn out, was just 10 days before he was announced (Politico, 12/7/16) to be part of Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). Yet more evidence of how, according to the Wall Street Journal (11/25/16), “Heritage has become a hybrid of an administration-in-waiting for Mr. Trump” and “a policy factory for the new Republican-led Congress.”
The Washington Post (12/7/16) recently published an op-ed from Marilyn Tavenner that advanced the agenda of private insurers whom she represents as CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP). “There is no single ‘silver bullet’ to ensure that people get and stay covered,” Tavenner wrote, advancing the notion that universal health care is virtually impossible. Of course, despite using the word “single,” she ignores a policy that is used in almost every industrialized nation to “ensure that people get and stay” covered: a single-payer system (or a similarly structured public plan).
This is hardly a surprise. The corporate media have long allowed partisan power brokers in Washington, funded heavily by the health industry, to frame the debate in the narrowest of terms, treating the commodification of healthcare as a default setting that can never be changed (Extra! Update, 6/94; FAIR.org, 5/11/11, 1/20/11).
While the industry and Heritage/Trump staffers all get to have their say about what should replace Obamacare, finding an advocate for single-payer in these outlets is far more difficult. For instance, the only mention of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) in Politico is a reference to a failed health reform effort in Vermont (12/20/14). In fact, PNHP compiles a list of major articles that advocate for single-payer, and with the exception of two articles from the Hill (11/16/16, 11/30/16), and one letter to the editor in the Times (11/16/16), since Trump’s stunning victory, the only articles advocating a national health system are from small local papers or independent news sites.
This problem existed during the Obama presidency as well, when the media portrayed the ACA, which was a “market solution” once promoted by Heritage (7/20/90; Forbes, 10/20/11), as the furthest acceptable “left” solution to the healthcare crisis. Single-payer, and even the far less transformative public option, were largely dismissed (FAIR.org, 5/11/11, 1/20/11).
Further, the media published a great deal of hyperbole from partisan liberals about the ACA, falsely portraying the law as a groundbreaking path to universal coverage as a human right (Washington Post, 11/23/13; Politico, 1/1/16). This portrayal further enforced the doctrinal notion that only market solutions were worthy of consideration, thereby undermining legitimate critiques of the ACA and its shortcomings (Truthout, 6/9/16).
The Times story uncritically advancing GOP talking points, just as the party prepares to take a hacksaw to what little safety net already exists in the United States, is a worrisome sign that the media’s flawed coverage of health policy will not be improving anytime soon. In terms of the coming repeal of the ACA, it seems the public will have “universal access” to the narrow viewpoints of a small group of power brokers in Washington, and little in the way of critical dialogue.
Michael Corcoran is a journalist based in Boston. He has written for the Boston Globe, The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Extra!, NACLA Report on the Americas and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @mcorcoran3.