Corporations’ influence on fair coverage of the health care debate
By Cassandra Leveille
Newsflash: the American public is in support of the public option. Results from a recent poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal and CNN released on Nov. 24 indicated that 57 percent of Americans supported a public option in conjunction with private health insurance, making it the latest of several polls with these results. However, the debate as depicted by the mainstream media on health care wouldn’t lead anyone to draw this conclusion. You’d think the public option was the furthest thing from people’s minds.
A Nov. 11 blog post on The Huffington Post showcased Fox News’ fabricated coverage from a recent Tea Party Express rally. Sean Hannity’s political commentary show combined that Tea Party footage with footage from a Sept. 12 protest to make it appear as though more people attended. Hannity also reported upward of 30,000 people attended, when in reality, the figure was actually closer to 10,000. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart exposed the fabrication by juxtaposing clips of the actual rally with the footage Fox showed.
While Hannity eventually denied the accuracy of the footage, this is a blatant example of the movement to oppose universal health care being depicted as more pervasive than it actually is. Similar distortions and misrepresentations by the mainstream media often go unchecked. Health care reform has almost uniformly been depicted in a negative light. Holocaust metaphors (as if they were appropriate) are constantly employed by right-wing pundits such as Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter to describe the prospect of health care reform.
The glut of this misrepresentation, paired with a lack of illumination in general about the health care debate, is symptomatic of who actually controls what is discussed. Corporate journalism is entangled with the pharmaceutical industry, as is the government, and if either becomes too critical of the pharmaceutical industry, both institutions risk losing funding.
For now Congress has largely done the bidding of corporations instead of working on behalf of the people they supposedly represent. This should be no surprise, considering most of our elected officials have ties to the health care industry, often receiving donations from massive health care lobbies, such as PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), the most powerful lobby in the U.S., in exchange for opposing reform that would damage PhRMA’s interests. According to OpenSecrets.org, PhRMA, whose member organizations include drug companies such as AstraZeneca, Merck and Pfizer, has donated almost $30 million to both Democratic and Republican senators and representatives during the 2008 election cycle.
Jim Naureckas, a journalist at FAIR.org covering the health care debate, noted elected officials often need the money pharmaceutical companies give them to fund re-election campaigns. “There’s a taboo against talking about this as something that might affect the legislation,” Naureckas said.
Since the majority of ideas disseminated align with ruling class ideology, it is often up to media watchdog groups such as FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) and Media Matters for America to detect the skewing, extremist language and omissions.
Naureckas said one of the reasons health care reform is so opposed by the pharmaceutical industry is because “health care is one of the bigger markets and health insurance is one of the bigger sources of profits… in terms of the rest of the industry, outside of insurance, there would be a lot more control over costs with a single-payer system than there is in the system we have now. The insurance companies would probably make less money. Controlling costs is one of the main goals of health care reform, and if they make less money, they would be unhappy about that.”
Indeed, one of the main reasons lobbies such as PhRMA are opposed to the public option is the risk of losing the lucrative profits they receive as a result of restrictive patents over prescription drugs. If a strong public option is passed, these companies risk losing the power to set the costs of potentially life-saving medicines, which are often exorbitant for uninsured Americans.
The traditional role of American journalism has been to illuminate issues of public concern and serve as the “fourth estate,” holding the government and other authorities accountable to the public. However, modern mainstream media has deviated incredibly far away from this goal. Corporate media’s ultimate purpose seems to be solely to entertain rather than inform. Jeff Cohen, founder of FAIR.org and associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, said the MSM “report on [health care] as though it were a sporting event.”
This handling of the news damages both the credibility of the news itself and the confidence of the common people. Robert McChesney, founder of FreePress.org, wrote in The Problem of the Media, “Journalism, which in theory should inspire political involvement, strips politics of meaning and promotes a broad depoliticization. Journalism is arguably better at generating apathy than informed and engaged citizens. Politics becomes antiseptic and drained of passion, of connection to the lives people lead. Today’s journalism is more likely to produce confusion than understanding and informed action.”
For all the lip service given to objectivity and explaining “both sides of the story” in news promos, the average American probably wouldn’t guess the original American tradition began with partisan journalism. Partisan newspapers had no pretenses about their biases; however, biases were supplied with crucial contextualization, which has all but disappeared in the modern 24-hour news cycle. McChesney noted, “contextualization was a strength of partisan journalism: it attempted to place every important issue in a larger political ideology, to make sense of it. What little contextualization professional journalism does provide usually conforms to official-source consensus.” Today, we receive so little context that it is difficult to make sense of issues such as health care.
The myth of objectivity is more insidious and harmful to journalism. By pretending that somehow we are free of bias, it becomes that much easier for corporations to propagate limited perspectives that favor their interests. “One of the key roles of the mainstream media is to determine what’s a reasonable reform proposition and what isn’t,” Coehn said. “By not covering certain options, [they are] ruled off the table.”
Although objectivity is hawked as unequivocal truth, in reality, the perspectives we are exposed to are very limited. Cyndy Scheibe, associate professor of psychology at Ithaca College, said a major bias of the MSM is the tendency to “report as though there were two sides, there are always two sides and that there are only two sides. And of course that’s not true at all. It’s very superficial and simplistic. And sometimes the evidence is overwhelmingly on one side. So reporting things as though there were two sides, and two equal sides, is silly. In an attempt to appear objective, reporters are urged to look always for an alternative viewpoint.” Often, this happens to be the most deviant viewpoint on an issue, which doesn’t contribute to a helpful discussion on a topic. Furthermore, Scheibe said, the “two sides” dichotomy silences discussion of alternative perspectives and “has undermined our ability to understand complexity and live with uncertainty.”
Corporate media has a vested interest in making sure the narrative that serves its interest is the only one that is told. This unabashedly reflects a rich, white, pro-business perspective. Of course, this segment of the population doesn’t see anything wrong with the private healthcare system as it’s currently constructed: they can pay the bills, after all. Often, they are currently profiting from the system as is. Any other perspectives, particularly ones the ruling class can’t profit from, will be hidden via omission – the public simply won’t hear about it.
The line between the establishment and the journalism has become so blurred that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. A blog post by Glenn Greenwald, a noted media critic, commented on a recent Newsweek article written by Evan Thomas. In the article, Thomas defines modern journalism as simply a tool of the establishment, not as a tool to possibly criticize the establishment. “By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are.? Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring,” Thomas wrote. Greenwald points out that Thomas forgets that the goal of journalism isn’t to merely agree with the status quo. Rather, it is to criticize the status quo when it no longer succeeds in serving the public good. However, this is no longer a priority for corporate media, which has become too corrupt to be a useful tool to serve the needs of the American people.
In 1997, Michael Kinsley of Slate.com, which is owned by the Microsoft Corporation, expressed this sentiment: “no institution can reasonably be expected to audit itself.” 21st century corporate journalism has apparently taken this dictum to its logical conclusion. Gross conflicts of interest, more and more, are assumed to be a given, not a problematic entanglement the public should be aware of. Mainstream journalism has largely failed its obligation to serve as the fourth estate and monitor the excesses of the government. But because behind the model of corporate journalism, the press is in cahoots with government, the press will not be critical of government – rather, the press simply functions as another arm of government.
Cassandra Leveille is a junior writing major. Sean Hannity is her uncle. Sorry, Uncle Sean. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.