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Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz on how media has gotten to the bottom of Obamacare

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

HH: We want to put a cap on our political coverage today by talking with one of the country’s preeminent media reporters, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post and of CNN’s Reliable Sources. Hello, Howard, how are you?

HK: Hello, Hugh, doing just fine.

HH: How hot is Washington, D.C. this late July?

HK: Well, we had a pretty good summer until the last few days, and now it’s basically unbearable.

HH: Well, maybe that will make them leave sooner. That’s what I want them to do. Howard, before we turn to health care, I’ve got to ask you, whenever there’s a media frenzy, as the Gates frenzy has been a media frenzy, I always ask you, when did you know it was all going very, very badly?

HK: (laughing) Well, the morning after the President’s news conference, which as you recall, was forty minutes of health care, and three minutes of Skip Gates, I turn on the set and Today Show was leading with the arrest, and Good Morning America was leading with the arrest, and I said okay, this is going to be the narrative for the rest of the week. It’s going to be utterly inescapable. And I can’t be that critical, because the President of the United States stepped in it, said something stupid from his point of view, by accusing the Cambridge police of stupidity. And he hadn’t made very much news on health care in the preceding forty minutes, but boy, we’re in the second week now, and it’s still going fairly strong.

HH: Well, the great irony is of course the President was criticized by me and my others for not knowing the facts when he spoke. But then the commentary has all been about facts which are still not yet in evidence. And so I haven’t said much about the actual event, because I still don’t know really what happened. Do you think many people do?

HK: You know, I think we’ve gotten a little bit more as we’ve heard more, for example, from Sgt. Crowley who was silent for the first couple of days, as we’ve heard the 9-11 tape. You know, people are debating this endlessly not just in my journalistic life, but in my personal life. I think in a weird kind of way, Hugh, that there’s actually a pretty interesting debate going on in the country right now about race and class and law enforcement, and that sort of thing. What has really struck me is the way when you listen or read African-American columnists, almost every one has a story about well yeah, this happened to me in college, this cop stopped me, demanded ID, and that kind of thing. And so whether you agree with what Gates did, maybe he was mouthing off to a cop and anybody could have done that of any race. The subtext, the context is certainly, it’s certainly clear to me that there is a history in this country where minorities feel like when the police siren goes off, or they get pulled over, that they have more to fear than a white person like me would.

HH: Now the second story, the birthers. Today, the National Review joined me, Michael Medved, most every center-right responsible conservative I know in denouncing the idea that the President isn’t a citizen. But yet this story continues to have legs. Today, the Hawaii guy came out and said again no, we’ve got his birth certificate. How long does this go on, Howard? And do you sense that the media is, and by that I mean mainstream media, is having fun with this because it has the potential to embarrass some conservatives because of the, in the way that the truthers embarrassed some Democrats?

HK: Probably in some quarters. I applaud the conservative who have stood up and said basically, this is whacko stuff, there’s not a shred of evidence, I don’t want to associate with these folks. I don’t understand why this has gotten so much prominence particularly on cable television in the first place. If we make a judgment as journalists that this is basically a lot of garbage, then why do we have to spend a lot of time flogging this horse? Now the guy who has been flogging it the most, it seems to me, is Chris Matthews on MSNBC. And while I agree with his general point of view on this, which is that it is a load of baloney, he, I don’t think there’s been one show in the last seven where he hasn’t dragged somebody on, G. Gordon Liddy or whoever, in order to beat up on that person. So it seems to me this has had enough attention.

HH: I think he does it because, it’s just low hanging fruit. It’s such an easy target. It is making fun of people with marginal grasp of logic. And so I think it’s just too easy for him. But I hope it goes away soon, because it does divert from the key discussion, and this is the key question. Is health care being covered the right way? I probably spend half of every show for the last two weeks, and beyond that, before my vacation, half of every show for months before that, on health care. But I don’t know that most media coverage has been very sophisticated or in depth on this. What do you think?

HK: Well, I do think I’ve read, and since I study this stuff, I have read a number of very detailed pieces, both news pieces and op-ed pieces in the major newspapers that have really tried to grapple with this tension that Obama is trying to resolve between how do you cover more people and yet keep costs from going out of control and all of that. But I’ll tell you what I think in the last few days, and maybe the Skip Gates arrest plays into this. I think the media are bored with health care. I think you know, the story has stalled, the legislative sausage making on Capitol Hill is not all that interesting. And here you had just today Obama went before the AARP to try to sell his plan again. CNN, where I have a show as you noted, took it live. MSNBC and Fox were doing other things. And I think there is a sense now, fairly or unfairly, because television thrives on the new and the novel, that we’re just sort of hearing the same repetitive talking points from the President. And unless there is, you know, some movement on this thing, I think they would rather be talking about Cambridge police.

HH: Well let me ask you about my biggest frustration. The President repeatedly says, he said it again in the town hall today, if you like the insurance you have, you can keep it. Now Howard, that’s not true. He can’t make that guarantee to people, because it’s up to employers, and employers by the thousands will push people into the government option. How come the media doesn’t ask him directly? I mean, Jake Tapper did two press conferences ago, not the last one, but the one before that. And the President bumped and ran. You know, he dodged it. It was, you know, like a receiver shedding the man on man. And Jake couldn’t catch up with him after that. He got rolled. But no one else follows up on that. Why is this most obvious of questions not being posed of him?

HK: Well, there was another question at the last press conference, which became known as the Gates press conference, and I think it may have been Chip Reid of CBS who asked it, which was basically, what sacrifices are you asking the American people to make in this health care plan, because obviously it’s at least a trillion dollars and so forth. And we all know, anybody who’s studied this for ten minutes, knows that there’s no free lunch. If we’re going to cover all these other people, there are going to be sacrifices, there are going to be trade-offs, there are going to be limitations on coverage, as there are now, the White House would say, with the insurance companies in charge. And the President totally ducked it and essentially said the only sacrifice I’m asking is for people to get fewer treatments that don’t help them become healthier, and then had that thing about the blue pill and the red pill. And there’s where I think there should have been more follow up in the mainstream media about the fact that he really wasn’t being straight about the trade-offs and the cost benefits in his own plan. But of course, by then, we’re all off on Skip Gates and race and that kind of controversy.

HH: Well again, so do you agree that that was dissembling on his part, I mean, spin? He just spun that. He did not answer it.

HK: I would agree that that was spin. I don’t think that he is being entirely up front about, whether you agree with his health plan or disagree with his health plan, or you like parts but you don’t like parts of it, or you think it’s better than the system we have now, I don’t think he’s being entirely up front about the fact that in order to implement this in anything like the form that he’s pushing, there are going to be trade-offs and sacrifices not just for those who are being asked to pay higher taxes, but in terms of limitations on coverage. Because if we continue to give all the health care everybody wants to not only those who have insurance now but those who don’t, you know, the costs are going to go through the roof.

HH: And so do you think it’s spin or something worse when he tells, when he assures the American people, looks them in the eye and says you can keep your insurance if you like it, that’s just not right, Howard. It’s not true.

HK: Well, I think, you know, he’s trying to say, as Bill Clinton I can remember saying very much the same thing during the ’93-’94 Hillarycare debate, you can still see your own doctor, and you can, you know, we’re not going to force you into another plan. But if you want to make the point that some employers may bail out of this, or that other changes may come that some people may not find, that they may find discomforting, I think that’s a fair point. I do think that point has been made in some of the news analysis. I don’t think that we’ve pressed it enough as we’ve gotten down to the details here.

HH: He just keeps saying it again and again and again, and that’s what is so very, very annoying about it. Howard Kurtz, is it a story that we’ve collected almost a million signatures online to stop Obamacare?

HK: And what does the petition say?

HH: It says stop Obamacare, You should look at it, Howard. It’s a big story, a million petitions. We’re going to be there soon. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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