Health Care Mobs = Swift Boat Vets. And the Press Plays Dumb Again
By Eric Boehlert -- Media Matters -- August 18, 2009
Here we go again.
During August's summer daze, right-wing mini-mobs (egged on by corporate interests) have run wild at town hall meetings, propagating all kinds of smears and misinformation in an effort to derail an important Democratic campaign. Yet the mini-mob members have been treated as deeply important newsmakers by the press during a slow summer news month.
Sound familiar? Recall August 2004, when the right-wing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (egged on by corporate interests) stole a month's worth of campaign headlines by propagating all kinds of smears and misinformation in an attempt to derail an important Democratic campaign. Yet they were treated as deeply important newsmakers by the press during a slow summer news month.
Honestly, the only thing missing this time around is a crackpot, best-selling book. In 2004, the Swifties used the release of Unfit for Command to launch their media-based smear campaign. This summer, it could have been something like ObamaScare: How Liberal Health Care Will Destroy America. (The Swifties' right-wing publisher must be kicking itself over the missed marketing opportunity.)
But what has been perfectly consistent is the way the press has, again, fallen for a right-wing smear campaign and dressed it up as news. Just as with the Swifties, the press has turned over its summer coverage to a band of agitators spreading misinformation. Five summers ago, the Swift Boat Vets helped hijack the election. They lied about documents, they lied about eyewitness, and they lied about their partisan affiliations and connections. For several crucial weeks during the campaign, journalists turned away from the pile-up of Swift Boat falsehoods and contradictions, rarely daring to call the Swift Boat attack out for what it really was -- a hoax. Too spooked by the GOP Noise Machine and its charge of liberal media bias, the press propped up the Vets as serious men and showered them with attention.
This year, the press has handed over untold hours of free airtime to mini-mob members whose sole purpose seems to be to spread as much fear as possible. (The ones who show up toting guns and Nazi posters make that point rather emphatically.)
Fringe players on the right are making wild accusations that cannot be backed up by fact. The mainstream media response? We must cover the phenomenon daily, even hourly!
So, day after August day, these vacuous health care "debates" are aired on cable television, just as news consumers suffered through night after night of vacuous Swift Boat "debates" five summers ago. In both cases, the press for the most part handed in its referee's whistle and focused its attention on simply reporting the fact-free claims and then getting the Democratic response. (i.e. he said/she said.) It turns out journalists are petrified of calling out right-wing activists as liars, and the other side knows it.
What's amazing is that even a conservative Republican congressman has conceded that the mini-mobs (this summer's news superstars) appear to be completely detached from reality. "You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible,'' Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina told the Los Angeles Times after being confronted by belligerent, fact-free protesters who were convinced that as part of health care reform, children would soon be forced to receive swine flu vaccinations. "At town meetings, the hostility went straight through to hysteria,'' said Inglis.
The "town hells" are really just mob rule masquerading as a health care debate, masquerading as direct democracy. Sadly, the news media are hyping both phony story lines. The press is taking the fringe players seriously, even the ones who spend their free time drawing up Obama-is-Hitler posters.
The Wall Street Journal, describing a New Hampshire protester:
[She] held a sign with Mr. Obama's face superimposed on a Nazi storm trooper, a sign, she said, that was made by her chronically ill mother.
"Adolf Hitler was for exterminating the weak, not just the Jews and stuff, and socialism -- that's what's going to happen."
I'm sorry, but since when are these types of crackpot protesters taken seriously by the American media? I guess I must have missed all the prewar coverage in 2003 when reporters from elite newspapers such as the Journal patiently interviewed radical protesters who showed up outside presidential events with posters featuring Bush's face superimposed over a Nazi storm trooper. I must have missed it when the Journal quoted people at length about how Bush wanted to start killing -- "exterminating" -- Americans.
In 2003, those fringe players (understandably) couldn't get arrested by the press. But the mini-mobs today have been ushered onto the national stage and urged to express their hatred incessantly and preferably in front of television cameras. It's just like when the press showered the lying Swifties with all kinds of attention despite the fact that they could barely keep track of their own laundry list of lies.
Today, the press, for the most part, won't call out the mini-mob supporters as liars or point out that, at times, they are blindingly ignorant about the facts in play. (OK, let's stipulate that many media outlets did debunk Sarah Palin's loony "death panel" claim. But does the press really deserve a pat on the back for completing that obvious task? Isn't that like congratulating your 12-year-old for not wetting the bed at night?) Apparently, journalists feel most comfortable reporting on what the mini-mobs are saying and how they're making life politically uncomfortable for Democrats.
And so now extremists are the news. And no, it doesn't really matter if what they're yelling about bears little resemblance to reality. For instance, here is a random collection of recent mini-mob quotes. I'm pretty sure every journalist covering the issue of health care understands the claims are obviously false. But good luck finding examples of fact-checking context:
"[T]he bill is socialistic. ... If this bill passed, would my wife be alive today?"
"They're going to cut Medicare by half a trillion dollars."
"This is the Soviet Union, this is Maoist China. The people in this room want their country back."
"The government wants to control my body, my health care decisions and the doctors I see."
"It doesn't say in the Constitution, give out free health care to people, bail out the auto companies. ... George Washington is rolling over in his grave right now. This is not what the Constitution wrote."
"They're going to take over everything. It's socialism. I don't want some bureaucrat making health decisions for me and my family."
"We are so far removed from the philosophy of the Founding Fathers that if they were here today, we would be talking about one thing: How to get the government out of health care."
And remember the man at Sen. Arlen Specter's televised town hall meeting last week who ignored the forum's protocol (the first 30 people admitted were allowed to ask questions) and screamed that Specter was "trampling on our Constitution" as the crowd erupted. After security guards moved in, the man kept shouting and yelling about how Specter's office had lied about being allowed to ask a question at the forum. "One day, God is going to stand before you and he's going to judge you!" the main announced before storming out of the room.
That confrontation was looped endlessly on television.
But seriously, what kind of voter gets in the face of a 79-year-old U.S. senator and starts pointing his finger and screaming about Judgment Day because the guy's upset about the Q&A format at a town hall meeting? How did any part of the man's pointless tirade qualify as news?
Simple. He yelled! Just look at The New York Times' headline on its blog post about the same Specter town hall forum: "Eruptions at Sen. Specter's Town-Hall Meeting."
There were eruptions, and "questioners did not hide their anger," which meant -- of course -- it was news. (And naturally the man should be invited to rant more on TV.) More important, there were conservative eruptions. Because as a general rule for Beltway newsrooms, when conservatives get angry about public policy, it's news. When liberals get angry (think anti-war), it's annoying. (The Times, by the way, never reported whether any of the town hall claims that day were accurate or not. The paper simply repeated the claims as news.)
Like the Swifties and their fictitious allegations, the fact-free claims of the mini-mobs have been instantly embraced as significant and game-changing events. But what exactly were those "eruptions" about? At the highlighted Specter event, it turns out the "eruptions" and "anger" had very little to do with health care reform.
Here were some crowd highlights:
"I did not want to pay on a health care plan that includes the right for a woman to kill her unborn baby."
"The illegals. They shouldn't even be here. I would ask Congress to do something to send them home, so we don't have to deal with that."
"I don't want this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country."
"Senator, if you wish to be remembered in the Congress by the American people, when you get back there, sponsor legislation that requires every House and Senate bill to be written in a junior high school level."
"Would you go back to Washington and represent us first as an American and tell Mr. Obama he's an American, and if not, there's other countries."
"But what about this Guantánamo closure? I don't want these criminals to come over here into our area and then escape and we find that a bunch of innocent people have been murdered. And that's what's going to happen."
Reading those, I wonder if Democratic consultant James Carville was too polite when he told Good Morning America that the mini-mob members "don't even know what they're talking about."
But that didn't matter, because The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza announced that the Specter town hall event where the televised mini-mob fireworks exploded had become the iconic moment of the summer:
The back-and-forth between Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and several attendees of a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., this week may become the lasting political symbol of the summer of 2009: a politician and his constituents standing inches away from one another, angrily debating the merits (or lack thereof) of President Obama's health-care reform plan.
Debating the merits? Really? Because if somebody could point out to me in the transcript where any sustained, informed debate actually took place that day, I'd sure like to see it. To me, the event seemed more like a right-wing radio gabfest, with citizens spouting a collection of repetitive talking points.
It was just a tea party held indoors.
Did anything the Specter mini-mob said that day make sense? Was any of it connected to reality? The Post didn't care. It made great theater. It was news.
And like the 2004 Swift Boat offensive, the mini-mobs are just another right-wing hoax that's managed to fool the press.