Howard Kurtz

Kudos to The Post

I started this blog with the intention of both criticizing and praising journalism.  But being the curmudgeon I can often be, it’s been more negative.  So let me rectify that in a small way by commending three good articles.

Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post manages to write a story about healthcare reform with quoting a single politician, no small feat these days.  He tells us how the reform bill will impose new rules on insurers.

Yesterday in The Post, Daniel De Vine writes about the student loan program changes incorporated in the healthcare bill.  He manages to go six paragraphs at the top of the story giving us pertinent information of the problem and solution before allowing the politicians their say.

Legislation hailed by supporters as the most significant change to college student lending in a generation passed the House on Sunday night.

The student aid initiative, which House Democrats attached to their final amendments to the health-care bill, would overhaul the student loan industry, eliminating a $60 billion program that supports private student loans with federal subsidies and replacing it with government lending to students. The House amendments will now go to the Senate.

By ending the subsidies and effectively eliminating the middleman, the student loan bill would generate $61 billion in savings over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Most of those savings, $36 billion, would go to Pell grants, funding an era of steady and predictable increases in the massive but underfunded federal aid program for needy students. Smaller portions would go toward reducing the deficit and to various Democratic priorities, including community colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and caps on loan payments.

The bill’s greatest impact would fall on the more than 6 million students who rely on Pell grants to finance their education. Pell, launched in 1973, once covered more than two-thirds of total costs at a public university. It now covers about one-third.

The student aid measure was initially framed as a boost to the Pell program. Now it is seen as its salvation. Democratic leaders say that without a massive infusion of cash, the maximum grant could be scaled back by more than half to $2,150 and at least 500,000 students could be dropped from the program.

The article devolves a bit when it allows a GOP opponent to deride the bill with a nonsensical quote.

"Instead of making student loans more affordable or preserving choice, competition and innovation in the loan program, Democrats are taking money from struggling students’ pockets to help pay for a government takeover of health care," said Rep. Brett Guthrie (Ky.), senior Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees higher education.

How the student program pays for healthcare reform escapes me.

And finally, a word of praise for Howard Kurtz, not one of my favorite Post writers.  But his story yesterday about news coverage of the healthcare fight stuck many of the cords I have in the past.

The conventional wisdom is that the press failed to educate the public about the bill’s sweeping changes, leaving much of America confused about just what it contained. That is largely a bum rap, [Ed. note:  I disagree] for the media churned out endless reams of data and analysis that were available to anyone who bothered to look.

As time went on, though, journalists became consumed by political process and Beltway politics [Ed. note:  Here’s where we agree], to the point that the substance of health-care reform was overwhelmed. Here the plea is guilty-with-an-explanation: The battle came down to whether the Senate could adopt changes by majority vote (reconciliation) and, until late Saturday, whether the House could approve the Senate measure without a recorded vote (deem and pass). With the bill’s fate hanging by these procedural threads, there was no way to avoid making that the overriding story.

Still, Kurtz can’t help defending his profession.

Journalists struggled to say exactly what was in health-care reform because as Obama allowed congressional leaders to take the lead, [Ed. note:  So it was Obama’s fault?] there were multiple versions floating around the Hill at any one time. Remember the months and column inches we wasted on Max Baucus and the Gang of Six, the Senate group that was going to hammer out a bipartisan compromise? That collapsed after many forests were sacrificed on its behalf.

When the polls turned against the president’s push, journalists did what they usually do in campaigns: beat up on those whose numbers are sagging. Stories shifted from preexisting conditions and individual mandates to whether Obama had staked his presidency on an overly ambitious scheme that Congress was unlikely to accept (and, inevitably, how much was Emanuel’s fault). From there it was a short jog to the rise of political polarization, the death of bipartisanship and the erosion of Obama’s influence — legitimate undertakings that again shoved the health-care arguments to the back of the bus.

One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of "death panels." [Ed. Note: Oh really!?; the press was very slow to correct the lie] After Sarah Palin floated the idea that government commissions would decide which ailing patients deserved to be saved, journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue.

But such black-and-white judgments were difficult with many of the provisions. How many people would defy the mandate to buy insurance? How much would a tax on "Cadillac" health plans raise? Would Congress have the stomach to deeply cut Medicare? How many people would be eligible for the much-ballyhooed public option? For that matter, what exactly is the difference between a public option and state-run insurance exchanges? [Ed. note:  Difficult to find, maybe, but educated guesses were available.]

Kurtz references a Columbia Journalism Review article that’s worth a read.

Press coverage of the effort to reform health care has been largely incoherent to the man on the street. The three hundred or so posts I have written about health-care reform for over the past two years tell the story of media coverage that failed to illuminate the crucial issues, quoted special interest groups and politicians without giving consumers enough information to judge if their claims were fact or fiction, did not dig deeply into the pros and cons of the proposals, and gave tons of ink and air time to the same handful of sources.

By now it’s a familiar critique—the press did not connect the dots, there were too many he said-she said stories, not enough analysis, and so on. And yet, after a decade in which the inadequacies of traditional press strategies—objectivity, top-down coverage, the primacy of the “scoop,” etc.—became ever more apparent to those of us who care about these things, those very strategies failed the country again on a story of monumental importance to every citizen.