Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have made political hay out of ABC's decision to broadcast a series of interviews, stories, and even an Obama White House town hall meeting about the administration's strategy on health care reform. At various points, the network was accused of playing the role of presidential mouthpiece in exchange for increased access. Using the segment as a hook, Michael Steele, chairman of the RNC, launched a fundraising drive to get out the RNC's own message on health care.
Now, it is the progressives' turn to complain about the same series. A media watchdog group, Media Matters, has released an analysis of the first installment of the ABC series -- a Good Morning America segment headed by Diane Sawyer -- including critiques of the actual questions asked. In particular, the group draws parallels between the areas of Sawyer's interests and how the Republican strategist Frank Luntz framed his strategy to derail health care reform.
For example, Sawyer began the segment by questioning Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius about "the public fear of a towering $1-to-2 trillion cost. Can Americans afford it?" From there, she pressed he president's top domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, about the issue of "rationed care" before playing a video of Newt Gingrich warning about "government bureacrat[s]" telling the public what type of coverage it can and cannot receive.
The similarities to Luntz, Media Matters says, are obvious. The conservative wordsmith, Luntz, wrote in a memo titled, "The Language of Healthcare 2009: The 10 Rules for Stopping the 'Washington Takeover' of Healthcare," that Republicans would be well served to warn of "some committee rationing care and telling people what they can and can't have."
Media Matters goes on from there to raise several objections with the lines of Sawyer's interview, again drawing parallels to Luntz's demonization of government bureaucrats getting between doctors and families. Highlighted in the memo, include the following Sawyer questions:
SAWYER: But if the -- the president said there have been unnecessary CAT scans, unnecessary tests. Who is going to decide what is necessary and unnecessary?
SAWYER: One headline of this then -- to say to Americans, you will be healthier with fewer tests. Trust us. Is that what you're saying?
SAWYER: What percentage of American medicine then do you think is doctors doing unnecessary tests because they're caught in some cycle of unnecessary testing?
SAWYER: So my potato chips are un-American?
This type of microanalysis of Sawyer's questioning seems to be, at its heart, as much about the media at large and how it has covered the health care issue, as about Sawyer herself. Media Matters' objection here involves the tendency among reporters who cover health care and other policy debates to look at an issue through the lens of the opposition. Neither Barnes, nor Sebelius were asked about the administration's commitment to the public option or its position on a compromise co-op proposal for insurance coverage. But, following the Sawyer segment, ABC's Robin Roberts conducted an interview with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, in which she pressed him on new polls showing that roughly three-quarters of the population support a government-run insurance plan.
On a broader level, the analysis says a lot about the current state of health care reform. There are, at this point, several bills being proposed in Congress, though none have been formally introduced. The administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly expressed its openness to all ideas. And yet, the process is already causing heated debate with Republicans in the Senate already drawing lines in the sand as to what proposals they will and won't support. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz suggested this past week that conservatives may have been "working the refs" when they were bemoaning ABC's decision to broadcast from the Obama White House. Media Matters is saying, effectively, that the refs were worked.