I have to admit before I begin that I don't watch cable television "news" during the day, because I consider it largely to be a waste of my valuable time.
Which, I have to say, the whole "balloon boy" episode proved beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt.
The cable media apparently went wall-to-wall on the story, breathlessly awaiting a development which would lead into one of their off-the-shelf well-worn storylines. It really didn't matter to them what the outcome was -- "Boy saved! It's a miracle!" or "Boy injured after wild ride" or even "Boy falls to death, we've got the tragic video!" -- the media was prepared for any of these options, which they knew would all drive up their viewership. The only option they weren't ready for was what the story turned into -- "The media got played!"
I mean, seriously, if you call yourself a "journalist," shouldn't you be able to tell when you're being suckered? Here's an enormous hint: if the main character in the story is described as "a former reality-show contestant" then you might just take a few seconds to check your facts before rushing the story on the air, because he might just be an attention-starved publicity hound. Especially when he started the whole media circus in the first place, by calling up the local media and begging them to use their helicopters (oh, and don't forget to take along a cameraman, of course!) to chase this silvery wild goose across Colorado.
So, to honor (and blatantly rip off) Stephen Colbert, I'd like to introduce a new word to the American zeitgeist -- "newsiness." This term (which everyone should start using immediately, of course) is defined as: "An event or subject which the mainstream media determines to be newsworthy by plastering all over national television screens, but which is ultimately proven to be nothing of the kind." Furthermore, I'm going to peg the first story ever covered for its newsiness alone as O.J. Simpson cruising across L.A. in his white Ford Bronco. Since then, of course, there are simply too many stories full of newsiness (but not actual news) to even contemplate counting. Just turn on a cable TV station, and wait awhile -- pretty soon, another one will be along.
In true Colbert style, I also ask that you credit me every time you have to explain the meaning of the term to someone else. Maybe Colbert'll ask me on his show or something... unless someone else has already thought up the term first (always a possibility in the word-coinage business... and since this one seems so obvious, in retrospect).
But what's really depressing is another aspect of newsiness -- how even the supposedly "serious" network journalists get conned by their own groupthink mentality to choose whatever slant on a real news story they feel like, which bears little resemblance to reality. Such as "winning the Nobel Prize is a serious political setback for Barack Obama." Um... what? This eight-month-old tradition can be summed up as: "No matter what Obama does, it's bad news for him, because we say so. So there."
Don't believe me? NBC Nightly News ran their story two nights ago (you've got to remember, this was before the balloon boy story broke, so I guess they had to put something up on the screen) on the Dow Jones average closing above 10,000 points. Ann Curry began the story thusly:
And for a nation waiting eagerly for an economic turnaround, a lot was made today about the Dow passing the 10,000 mark and closing just above it for the first time in a year. But just how hopeful is this news when balanced with other evidence, including grinding unemployment rates?
The story then went on to ever-so-briefly mention the stock market, and then took the entire rest of the segment to talk about outrage about Wall Street bonuses on Capitol Hill, people (complete with interviews) losing their jobs and houses, people losing health insurance, and people who have put off retirement. In other words, the Dow hitting 10,000 points is horrible, horrible news.
Here, as a contrast, is David Gregory, on NBC's Meet The Press back in March, when the market was at its low point:
There's a confidence problem that is at the base of the economic crisis. Here is one metric, and Business Week had a chart that showed the Dow and how it's gone down since Election Day. November 4th it was at 9,625; went down on Inauguration Day to 7,949; the stimulus assigned, it's at 7,552; at Friday's close, 6,626.
Gregory then went on to ask Democratic Senator Charles Schumer if he didn't agree that "some of what's happening is a response to the policy agenda of the president?" Later, Gregory asked Newt Gingrich:
Right, and Mr. Speaker, we've got a couple of historians on the panel here this morning. The president says "Don't be afraid." He told the New York Times, we showed it earlier, you know, "Don't put your money under your mattresses," he's saying, "It might be a good time to buy stocks even." But the Wall Street Journal editorialized this week and said, "No, there is actually a negative response to his agenda, and that's what's causing this loss of confidence." This is what the Journal wrote: "What's worrying about the plunge in equities, especially in the last week since Mr. Obama released his radical budget, is that it has come amid the unveiling of the president's policy agenda. Equity prices have reached -- reacted to those proposals by signaling that they expect a much deeper and longer recession."
Back in March, you see, the storyline was: "It's all Obama's fault the stock market has crashed." Now that the Dow's above 10,000, the storyline is: "Pay no attention to the stock market, America is still in ruins in the dismal Age Of Obama."
In the followup story on the NBC Nightly News, an "expert" from CNBC grudgingly admitted: "We have come a long way since then [March], in part due to incredible help from the federal government in stabilizing the financial system." President Obama was not mentioned in either segment, either by name or even in passing. Obama's directly and personally to blame if the stock market's down, of course, but "the federal government" (and not Obama) is who gets the credit for the market's recovery.
All par for the course, it seems. What's that? Breaking news of a minor celebrity's cat in a tree? Well, heck, that's certainly full of newsiness! Let's go to our live video feed of the action, for the next six hours....
Just fooling. We have no live feed of Stephen Baldwin's cat in a tree. We hope you'll forgive us for this lack of newsiness.
Instead, we have our awards segment! First up, of course, is the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.
Senator Max Baucus passed a healthcare reform bill out of his Senate committee this week, but the statute of limitations on earning a prize for doing so ran out two and a half months ago, sorry about that, Senator.
Alan Grayson continues to be impressive, riding a wave of popularity and media attention for showing the rest of the Democratic Party how to show some gumption in public, for which he deserves at least an Honorable Mention.
But our winner this week is none other than Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. Durbin has introduced a bill yesterday to end the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. Cocaine, you see, is illegal. But if you possess this cocaine in powdered form (as opposed to "crack" or "rock" form), you have to possess one hundred times as much to get the same mandatory minimum prison sentence as someone who got caught with crack. Five grams of crack sends you to jail, but you have to have a half a kilogram (500 grams) of powder to draw the same sentence.
This law was passed during the insanity of the law-and-order Drug War (see: the last 100 years of American drug policy -- well, OK... see: just the Nancy Reagan phase... that narrows it down somewhat). It has led to a disproportionate amount of people of color locked behind iron bars, while it did not change the slap-on-the-wrist policy for white kids from the suburbs. Half our federal prisoners are locked up for drug offenses.
Sooner or later, someone was bound to say "we can't afford this any more." And not in a Liberal "we can't afford the lost lives and lost potential of prisoners" touchy-feely kind of way, but in a Conservative "we can't afford the damn prisons, it's a drain on our budget" fiscal kind of way.
Dick Durbin, for whatever reason, has introduced a bill to do away with this blatant disparity. From his press release:
Drug use is a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. Our current cocaine laws are not. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations. Congress has talked about addressing this injustice for long enough; it's time for us to act.
For introducing such a commonsense bill, Senator Durbin is hereby awarded the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.
[Congratulate Senator Dick Durbin on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
I'm a bit dubious about this award, because it may have to go to "the idiocy we call our mainstream media" instead. After Max Baucus finally got the final healthcare reform bill out of his committee this week, a story quickly appeared in the media about the next step in the Senate -- merging the Baucus bill with the bill from Chris Dodd's committee. This falls to Majority Leader Harry Reid. And while Reid held a meeting almost immediately with White House representatives and Dodd and Baucus, word leaked out (from "Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid") that Olympia Snowe would be invited to future meetings with Reid to rewrite the two bills into one.
Reid's office quickly had to walk this back. The next day, they tried to reassure everyone that Snowe would be "consulted" but not sit in on the meetings themselves. Now, this was either (a) bad reporting of the initial story, or (b) Reid being wishy-washy. Take your pick.
Because of such open questions, we are tentatively awarding the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week to the Jim Manley, Harry Reid staffer, who leaked the idea to the media in the first place. We're just glad Harry realized that it was a bad idea, and walked it back so quickly.
Volume 98 (10/16/09)
While the healthcare reform debate has quieted down in the news a bit, the battle is now truly raging behind closed doors in Washington. Meaning that, once again, we must issue a call to action here instead of providing Democrats with snappy things to say to reporters over the weekend.
Because in the no-longer-smoky back rooms in Washington, the specifics of healthcare reform are being decided right now. For the next week or so, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will be in charge of hammering out the details in whatever will be the final bills. Meaning that now is the time to act -- call your Representatives and Senators and let them know how you feel about healthcare reform!
I've already issued one "lockerroom halftime pep talk" this week, so if you need some motivation, go and read that.
But rather than just providing one point of view here, I will instead lay out the possibilities for compromise that Pelosi and Reid will be wrestling with in the coming weeks. Without interjecting my own preferences (or at least not too much), I'd like to run down the different schemes being kicked around right now. Some of these are ideas for compromise, some are not. Some are ideas which could be combined with others, some are exclusionary. But I thought we all should review exactly what everyone is talking about, before you pick up the phone and call your elected officials in Washington.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
We'll start with the crowd-pleaser. This can be summed up as: "Strong public option or bust!" Senator Jay Rockefeller IV has emerged as one of the stronger voices advocating this -- "Because most of the Democratic Party is in favor of the strong public option, and because we've already compromised from single-payer, then we will accept nothing less than a robust and strong public option, nationwide, right now, thank you very much."
The idea is that it'll be so strongly supported by people who won't back down that the Blue Dogs will have to just like it or lump it. Since most of the party's on board, the Blue Dogs can either (a) hold their nose and vote for it, or (b) be known as the guy who killed Obama's healthcare reform and lost the Democratic majority in Congress.
This is, essentially, a game of "chicken" -- to see who blinks first. It runs the risk of failure. But if it worked, it would come out with the strongest possible public option, so its advocates feel it is worth that risk.
I forget who came up with this idea, because I've never really paid much attention to it, sorry about that. The idea: instead of government actually running a public option, let the government give seed money to encourage the formation of co-operatives (whether by state or region, but never nationally to the best of my knowledge) which would then run as private institutions, separate from government control, money, and influence. Public money would pay the start-up costs, but then they could never get bailed out by taxpayers, the co-ops would have to sink or swim on their own.
This is a very weak public option at best (if it can even still be called a "public option," which is debatable). Not only would it be set up by state or region (instead of nationally), but it seems it would be a one-time experiment which could either work or fail. If a regional or state co-op fails, what happens? No one knows. I don't really take this idea seriously (because I don't think anyone's going to support it in the end), but I include it here for completeness' sake.
Roy Rogers' horse
In other words, the "Trigger" option. This idea is Olympia Snowe's, and also a rumored favorite of Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
Give the insurance companies a few more years, just in case they decide to get it right and bring everyone's costs down. But if they don't, threaten them with a future "trigger" which, if "pulled" would spring a full-blown public option on the scene to compete with the private companies. This is usually further watered down by using a state or regional public option as the threat.
Critics point out that such "triggers" have been tried in legislation before, but what always winds up happening is that the actual language dictating when the trigger is pulled gets watered down to the point of meaninglessness, and the trigger is hence never pulled.
Proponents of the idea see it as a way to get Olympia Snowe on board for the final vote, and also for any cloture/filibuster votes as well. They even dream of getting a second female Senator from Maine to vote with them as well.
Critics respond by suggesting that Olympia's trigger suffer the same fate as Roy Rogers' Trigger -- "Get stuffed!"
State-level public option
Proposed by Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. The media has, for some reason, been pushing this option about as hard as they're pushing Snowe's trigger option. Considering the wrongitude of the usual inside-the-Beltway chatter in general, perhaps this means it doesn't have a chance. Who knows?
The idea is to provide a real public option -- the dreaded "government-run healthcare" which causes Republicans to micturate in their unmentionables -- but one that only operates on a state level. Or perhaps regional level, Carper could probably be talked into that (seeing as how he hails from the second-smallest state in the Union).
This, critics charge, would undermine the usefulness of having a public option in the first place, since it would guarantee that they would be kept small and hence limit their collective bargaining power.
But it might be seen as an acceptable compromise by some in the corridors of Congress. Therefore, if you feel it is not acceptable, it's time to get on the phone and let them know that, because it is certainly being talked about a lot.
I should note that I spent a large chunk of last week's column exploring the pros and cons of this idea, if you're interested in further details.
This is Senator Chuck Schumer's idea, and it hasn't been getting much attention from the chattering classes on the teevee screen. But it has been getting some attention from those truly making the decisions, and gained a strong measure of support today from Senator Tom Harkin, "one of the fiercest champions of the public option in Congress."
So perhaps the media ignoring it is a good thing.
The plan is simple -- start with a nationwide strong public option, and then allow individual states to "opt out" of the plan, if they so choose. This is a "put up or shut up" challenge to Republicans, and it would certainly be interesting to see which states did opt out. But if half (or more) of the states stayed in the plan, then it would provide the strongest compromise possible between the "nationwide public option or nothing" and the "I'll never vote for a public option because my state hates it" positions.
Critics still have problems with this plan because of the precedent it sets (see: states' rights versus federalism), and because they don't think there's a need to compromise at all. They may be right about that, but it still seems like a better compromise than the rest of them to me.
Whoops! I'm not supposed to be editorializing, sorry. Ahem.
Let more people into Medicaid
Coming from the House, this is perhaps the easiest-to-understand plan for normal people. Just expand Medicaid -- the federal healthcare for the poor -- until it covers everyone not currently covered.
There are two flavors of this, which Nancy Pelosi is no doubt wrestling with now. In the first, the payouts would be the same as Medicaid currently pays out. Rural states are against this idea, because they feel they already get shorted in Medicaid dollars. So the second flavor would either change the formulas for Medicaid reimbursement (this may happen separately anyway, there's a lot of rural support for doing so, no matter what the rest of the plan looks like), or negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals, more like a private health insurance company does.
But it would certainly have the benefit of merely expanding an already-existing government program, instead of selling people on something entirely new.
No more monopoly protections!
This idea has been gaining in support of late, with both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi coming out in favor of it, especially after the health insurance industry tried to torpedo Max Baucus' bill at the eleventh hour. Baucus' bill was the most friendly yet to the insurance companies, and they still decided to take it down if they could with a very-fuzzy-math report issued at the last minute.
So Pelosi and Reid are looking for some payback, and this may be the form it takes. Health insurers are (who knew?) exempt from certain anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws. They've been this way since World War II.
Which may be about to end. This is kind of unrelated to the larger debate, and may also happen no matter what the rest of the bill looks like. It certainly seems like a good idea, but I'm sure the Republicans and the Blue Dogs will quickly regroup, and inform us all how Western Civilization itself will come to an apocalyptic end if health insurers can't be legal monopolies.
We can look for this opinion to be plastered all over the teevees soon, because it's just so chock-full of newsiness.
Until next week... same Bat time, same Bat channel... oh, which reminds me, anybody got any good ideas of how to mark this column's volume numbers turning over three digits (in two weeks)? I'm all ears... let me know in the comments.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground