The Washington Post’s Health Care Coverage: The Whole Megillah

The Washington Post published last Sunday what is probably their best piece ever about the health care debate.  The irony is that the story was written not by a Post reporter but by the newspaper’s ombudsman, and the thrust of his article was reader unhappiness with the superficiality of the paper’s coverage of this issue

As one of them put it, "’Your paper’s coverage continues in the "horse race" mode.  Who’s up, who’s down … political spin, personal political attacks.’"

Lamentably, the same could be said about much of the mainstream media’s coverage of health care, and not just of health care but of a range of public policy issues, particularly those with an important economic component.

Consider, for instance, the remarkable announcement that issued from the White House on Aug. 25.  The federal deficit, they said, would rise by $9 trillion during the 10-year period from 2010 to 2019.  This amounted to an increase of $2 trillion more than the White House had estimated as recently as February.

Now if, at the very moment that announcement was made, the entire West Wing had collapsed into rubble, and the head of the OMB been struck deaf and dumb, the news might have taken on a kind of visual impact both for the media, and for the rest of us.

But there were no visuals, and so the news was reported in much the same way that TV news anchors announce a jump in the pump price of unleaded.  It was big.  It was a number.  It was Yet Another Example of Mankind’s Fatal Flaws.  (The news anchor’s burden, you know, stories like these.)

In other words, it was nothing at all.  Nothing anyone could be expected to relate to or get a handle on.  Five minutes after hearing the news so reported, the only concern on most people’s minds was what they were having for dinner.

And who could blame them?  For most people a billion dollars is hard to imagine; a trillion is incomprehensible.  And that’s the very point.  The missing ingredient in media coverage of the health care debate, and of the nation’s fiscal policy, is not what the polls or pundits are saying.  Nor is it insight into how politicians plan to spin or parlay these issues to their advantage.

The missing ingredient is the economic impact.  How, for instance, will the government finance such large deficits?  What will the impact be on the credit markets?  On the U.S. dollar?  With the government commanding so much of the investing pie, will there be enough left over to fund private sector needs?  And if so, at what interest rates?

Assuming a constant velocity in their capacity for error, what’s to stop a deficit that is said to have risen 28 percent in the past six months from rising another 28 percent in the next six?

Similar questions mark the health care debate.  What’s the plan?  Is it to provide insurance for people who currently have none?  Or is it to put a brake on rising costs?  Can a plan that attempts to do both really be “deficit neutral"?  And if it’s not, what’s the downside to that?

In the same piece cited at the beginning of this note, the Post’s ombudsman links to an earlier story written by a former reporter.  Called “Myths About Health Care Around the World,” this article provides some useful, if not completely convincing, perspective on the health care debate.  The author points out that Medicare, after all, is a government-run program, but he also points to countries like Japan and Germany that have private insurance with private doctors and hospitals and very efficient systems.

Reading it, one gets the inkling of an idea that perhaps there is a route to meaningful and beneficial health care reform, but it’s unlikely to happen if the media, through their pursuit of "horse race" and politicized coverage of this issue (the Pew Foundation says 72 percent of the Post’s stories were of this sort), keep people in the dark about the important details.

That way lies nothing but anger, frustration, and contempt — first for the politicians but, just a short step behind, for the media as well.

The Washington Post’s ombudsman appears to understand that now.  When will the paper’s editors and reporters?

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