Biology in the News Explained

David Gregory and the quixotic belief in the fictitious ideal

Is David Gregory just blatantly sexist, or is he trying to defend his credentials against conservatives who continue to insist on the reality of “liberal mainstream media” (even though this myth should have quickly died after the pathetic reporting that did nothing to prevent a right-wing instigated and unjustified Iraq war)? One of these has to be the explanation for his sharply divergent treatment (on last Sunday’s Meet the Press) of Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, and Mitch McConnell, Republican minority leader in the Senate, on the issue of health care reform.

I took data on the broadcast, assessing as objectively as possible Gregory’s aggressiveness in questioning each guest. One clear measure was the number of times Gregory interrupted each guest, based on overlap in their speech. Another (admittedly somewhat more subjective) measure was how many questions each was asked that challenged the point the guest was making.

Sebelius was on first, and Gregory interrupted her 17 times. Ten of those interruptions were to ask challenging questions, and eight more challenging questions were asked in addition. By contrast, the interview with McConnell was a barrage of softballs: Gregory interrupted him only twice, and asked only four challenging questions. In addition, Gregory followed up several Sebelius’ assertions (all based on easily procured data) with challenging questions, while the multitude of unsubstantiated assertions made by McConnell were not followed up except somewhat in one case.

But the larger problem is that the interviews epitomize the largest stumbling block to reform right now. This is the pervasive and irrational fear of change that the Republicans are stoking, and the way they (and the complicit mainstream media) are doing it. It’s a similar issue to one already discussed, the use of fear mongering in politics in general. But research (to be detailed in the next post) has been done on psychology and brain activity associated with fear of change in particular.

One of the strange things that those irrationally opposing a rational change do to argue against it is to compare the potential situation to an ideal situation, rather than to the status quo. Sebelius valiantly tried to point out the many factual ways in which our current health care “system” is unsustainable and unfair. Each time, Gregory ignored the point she was making to ask a question comparing the proposals on the table not to the status quo, but to an unachievably ideal system. For example:

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  Let’s talk about quality.  And you mentioned, if I like my insurance, I’m going to be able to hold on to it.  That’s what the president talked about in his weekly radio address…
But is that truth in advertising?  The AP did an analysis of this, and this is what they reported Saturday:  “It’s a pledge beyond Obama’s control.  His plan leaves companies free to charge their health plans,” rather, “to change their health plans in ways that workers may not like or to drop insurance altogether.” If an employer says, “We can’t afford what we’ve got,” a small business owner, they can change whether the employee likes it of not.
SEC’Y SEBELIUS:  Well, David, that’s exactly what’s happening in this marketplace.  We have 12,000 Americans each and every day losing coverage.  We have small business owners, over half of whom used to offer coverage, who don’t anymore, who are being priced out of the marketplace. What the president is talking about is stabilizing employer coverage, making it easier for small employers to, first of all, offer coverage…A lot of them tell me, “We can’t compete for good employees because they’ll go down the street to somebody who’s got health benefits when I can’t offer them.” We got people locked into their job who would like to start a small business or work for somebody else.  We have parents terrified when their kids graduate from college, happy day, but they’re suddenly uninsured and some of them uninsurable.  We have a system that absolutely doesn’t work.
MR. GREGORY:  But it doesn’t address the fact that if you like your insurance you may not be able to keep it, like the president says.

When has there ever been a situation in American history when the average citizen was guaranteed to keep insurance that he/she liked? Never, because their insurance (and usually their job itself) has always been at the whim of their employer. Gregory is comparing the proposal to an impossible ideal, not to the status quo which anyone who is honest knows is a disaster, and needs to be improved drastically.

At the same time, McConnell made blatantly unfactual, yet unchallenged, statements about government-run health care (which we already have of course, so the real data on it are available):

MR. GREGORY:  And there are issues like rationing (that) the Republicans bring up that goes on now, when private insurance companies say you can’t have certain things covered.  That already exists.
SEN. McCONNELL:  Yeah.  Not like it would if you had a government plan.  I had a friend of mine in Florida who called up recently and said he’d just lost a friend of his in Canada because the government decided he was too old for a certain kind of procedure, and apparently he didn’t have the money or the ability to get down to the United States for quality health care.  I don’t think that’s the direction the American people want us to go, David.
MR. GREGORY:  Final point on this, and that’s political tactics here.

Gregory just went on to his next question, failing to point out that under our current system of rationing, 47 million Americans are denied all care but emergency care (which, paraphrasing McConnell, is not morally wrong). Sure, McConnell can cite one guy from Canada who wanted but was unable to come to the U.S. to pay for a procedure that his government had denied (and of course the story is deliberately kept vague so we have no idea if the procedure he desired was scientifically justified or not); isn’t it a little worse that 47 million people within our own borders don’t have anyone they can even ask for any sort of ‘procedure’ in the first place?

The media lets this propaganda go unchecked, apparently in some sort of quest for objectivity. Why is it considered objective to give equal weight to two positions when one is based on fact, and one on conjecture, anecdote and myth? Once again, as in the run up to the Iraq war, the media are failing us when we need them desperately to provide facts, not opinions, to the American people. We surely miss Tim Russert, who was well known to ask everybody he interviewed the hard questions, no matter their political persuasion.

Next:  Who resists change the most, and why?


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