Republicans in the Senate are about to radically overhaul former President Obama’s landmark Affordable Healthcare Act but you’d hardly know it watching American media. The sheer size of this shift involved in the American Health Care Act (AHCA), both in moral and economic terms, cannot be overstated. 23 million Americans stand to lose their health insurance, and according to one study, 18,000 to 28,000 people will die as a result of the GOP bill by 2026. But for weeks, while the public could have had some say-so as to what was in the bill by pressuring Republicans for more transparency, major media sat by and did next to nothing.
One Media Matters survey found over one two-week period in early June, as the bill was being molded in secret, major networks all but ignored the topic. CBS News didn’t cover the subject at all, ABC gave it a mere 40 seconds and NBC News dedicated just under 2.5 minutes out of roughly five hours of news. By contrast, NBC News program “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly” set aside 700% more time, or 17.5 minutes, to the urgent topic of Alex Jones.
Newspapers didn’t fare much better. Though most did report on the subject and the corresponding GOP coverup, the story was largely buried. During the same two-week period in early June, only two front pages from major newspapers featured the story, out of a total of 40.
The most urgent political issue of the past decade was all but a non-issue in major media outlets. And in the rare case it was mentioned, the fact that Republicans were deliberately keeping the process secret was not.
Without this key piece of context, one was left with the distinct impression there was a degree of bipartisan input into the law rather than the truth — that the AHCA was a cynical power grab by Senate Republicans.
The net effect played out as one would expect: according to a survey by research company Morning Consultant, only 22 percent of regisitered voters had heard “a lot” about how Senate Republicans were writing the ACHA in secret — well behind topics such as Trump sharing classified intelligence with Russia, the Paris climate accords, and the Comey testimony.
What makes this dereliction of duty by the media uniquely sleazy is it plays directly into the Republican PR strategy for passing Trumpcare. The goal from the beginning was to keep the bill secret and reveal its contents at the 11th hour, similar to how the House passed its AHCA last bill in early May. According to a report by Axois earlier this month:
Senate Republicans are working to finish their draft health care bill, but have no plans to publicly release it, according to two senior Senate GOP aides.
"We aren't stupid," said one of the aides. One issue is that Senate Republicans plan to keep talking about it after the draft is done: "We are still in discussions about what will be in the final product so it is premature to release any draft absent further member conversations and consensus."
When the most powerful forces in the country expressly flaunt their secrecy and even frame it as a positive, one would think this would bait the media into more coverage, not lull them into less. By keeping the process airtight, the GOP effectively starved the press of content to report on. But the conspiracy to keep the process hidden from the public was itself a story and one in urgent need of covering. While some did, such as cable outlet MSNBC and Vox.com, they were the exception, not the rule.
A corporate media that obsesses about balanced reporting likely feared looking overtly partisan by highlighting the ploy at work, but once again, this false balance let Republicans off the hook. It wasn’t until this week, when protesters gave editors and producers visuals of disabled people being dragged out by Capitol police and the contents of the bill itself was revealed that they started paying attention. But now it’s too late: the bulk of the bill has been written and a vote is likely going to be jammed in before the sleepy fourth of July weekend.
No public discussion. No measurable outrage from major media on the total lack of public discussion. Some handwringing late into the process, and last-minute attempts by pro-Democratic media to rally the troops, but ultimately the Republican strategy of dodging the media worked exactly as they hoped it would.
h/t Media Matters and Vox’s Jeff Stein.