Health Care Reform News versus Entertainment

There’s news and then there’s The Daily Show, hosted by Jon Stewart. Mr. Stewart is clear his is not a news show. He is an entertainer. His show is, after all, on Comedy Central. Yet his insights on the health care reform are far deeper than anything you’ll find on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. While clearly liberal, Mr. Stewart has the smarts to be an equal opportunity lambaste-er.

Now, let me say, I recognize the health care reform debate is a serious issue. One has only to read a comment left by Tracey to appreciate that. She played by all the rules (purchased coverage, paid her premiums), but her son’s coverage will soon reach it’s lifetime maximum. The substance of health care reform is literally about life and death.

The politics of health care reform sometimes loses sight of that reality. Beneath the bombast and the shrill rhetoric human lives hang in the balance. Sometimes it takes humor to put things in perspective and to get us focused on what really matters – that the status quo cannot be sustained. Change is needed and our leaders and the media need to be focused on helping us understand the tough choices we need to make. They need to be clear and articulate. They need to avoid fear mongering and hysteria. When leaders and the media fail, they need to be held to account.

Enter Mr. Stewart and his comrades in humorous arms. Take, for example, this clip in which John Stewart gives both President Barack Obama and Fox News deserved reality checks (the president at about 3 minutes and 30 seconds into the clip; Fox at about 4 minutes and 40 seconds).  Warning: The clip is PG-13 rated – at least.

In another episode, Mr. Stewart captures the absurd heights the national dialogue on health care reform reached this August, when he observes “So the debate seems to have boiled down to one side screaming so loud and so angrily that they’ve drowned out the other sides’ incoherence.”

Congress is about to convene once more and the final push for health care reform is about to begin. Next week, as you leave what I hope is a terrific Labor Day weekend behind you, keep this in mind: for entertainment masquerading as news, tune into MSNBC or Fox (depending on your predisposition). For news delivered as entertainment, keep an eye on The Daily Show. Consider it the silver lining of the political craziness we call the legislative process. And let’s hope at the end of the day the result of all this is a system that works for Tracey and the rest of us.

Health Care Reform Disruptions Help Nothing

It’s a sad day when silencing opponents becomes a substitute for civil discourse, especially on issues as important and complicated as health care reform. Yet, that’s what’s happening as national organizations encourage local residents to disrupt Congressional town hall meetings being held around the country during the Congressional August recess.

That people have strong opinions on health care reform is a given. There are few issues that touch Americans as deeply as the health and well being of themselves and their families. They should care passionately about changes to the American health care system and they should communicate their questions and concerns to their representatives.

Bringing town hall meetings to a halt, however, is not debate, discourse or discussion. It’s political thuggery aimed at preventing the exchange of ideas, not promoting them. The anger generating this misbehavior may be genuine, but the tactics are orchestrated. The campaign organization distributed a memo on how to hijack town hall meetings. To be fair, after calling on opponents of the Democratic reform package to pack the hall and shout-out questions and objections, the memo cautions “Don’t carry on and make a scene – just short intermittent shout outs.”

Needless to say, this advice has gone by the wayside as some of these demonstrations have turned violent, members of Congress have been hung in effigy and lawmakers have had their lives threatened all while the media’s attention has shifted from the value of a public health plan to the whether the outbursts are genuine or orchestrated. (I think we can all agree that it’s more exciting for the media to cover a fist fight than an explanation on how comparative effectiveness of medical services might lower health care costs).

And it’s not that the demonstrations have turned ugly. Some of the rhetoric and fear mongering has gotten downright silly. Some have accused Democrats of promoting the killing of seniors because the bill allows Medicare reimbursement for consultations concerning living wills and other end-of-life issues. C’mon people, really? Or my personal favorite: calls to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Umm, for those paying attention, Medicare is a government health plan. 

It’s not just conservative organizers like the FreedomWorks that are to blame for this lack of civility. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken to calling insurance carriers villains and immoral. That doesn’t help with the tone. And now liberal groups are organizing to confront the conservative groups disrupting the town hall meetings.

Nor, by the way, are these kinds of tactics new. In 1996, shortly before election day, I was moderating a panel discussion featuring four health insurance executives when demonstrators, trailed by television and radio reporters, burst in, chanted slogans and dumped buckets of beans on the stage. They were there in support of a single-payer initiative on the California ballot – an initiative that was handily defeated.

Trying to silence the opposition through intimidation and disruption is an old tactic shared by the right and the left. That doesn’t make it correct nor is it helpful. There are serious issues that need to be debated. And there is a legitimate need for changes to the status quo. It would be nice if we dealt with the substance of what’s at stake, but that’s hard to do in the midst of intentional chaos.

Of course, it’s easier to shout someone down than to persuade through ideas. Perhaps what these demonstrators fear is that, in a real dialogue, they would be able to express their ideas, but they’d have to listen as well. And that might lead to someone actually learning something.

Would that really be such a bad thing?