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Questioning the ‘Outpouring’ of Opposition to Health Care Reform

Republicans in Congress have been quick to point to the sometimes-riotous town-hall forums of recent weeks as indication that Americans en masse believe the Democrats’ plans for health care reform to be atrocious. Indeed, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, is claiming this morning that President Obama’s decision to address a joint session of Congress on the topic next week is “clearly a direct response to the outpouring of opposition this past month from the American people.”

While the other side wanted to dismiss these folks as an un-American fringe or political terrorists, the truth is that citizens across this nation do not want Washington taking over our health care system.

It’s a curious argument, if only because the thousands of people coming out to these events, while they represent larger crowds than lawmakers are accustomed to seeing, still make up a tiny fraction of the voting public. Political columnist E.J. Dionne tackles the issue in today’s Washington Post, arguing that the town halls have seemed much more raucous than most have actually been for the simple reason that outbursts about death panels and socialized medicine make for better TV than quiet discussions about health care policy. The media, Dionne says, are complicit.

“There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television’s point of view “boring”) encounters between elected representatives and their constituents,” Dionne writes, before pointing out what’s been ignored in the process.

Over the past week, I’ve spoken with Democratic House members, most from highly contested districts, about what happened in their town halls. None would deny polls showing that the health-reform cause lost ground last month, but little of the probing civility that characterized so many of their forums was ever seen on television.m[…]

The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham. The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: “Your meeting doesn’t get covered unless it blows up.” As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No “news” there.

Dionne doesn’t offer any solutions to the timeless trouble of the major media outlets, being businesses, having to cater to the often mindless tastes of television viewers. But as a political strategy, Democrats might tap the logic of Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, who dismissed those enormous, high-profile protest rallies against the Iraq War by reasoning that more people didn’t march than did. The same, of course, can be said for the town halls.

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