History-Making Aspect of ACA Takes Back Seat to Political Vitriol

September 30th, 2013 · 1 Comment · budget policy, health care reform, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

The story opened with “History will be made Tuesday.”

But history was relegated to second string when it came to the headline.

“Like it or not, OBAMACARE is here” is the headline that ran atop the front page of the Sunday Journal print-edition, on its central story about this week’s rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

Like it or not for those reading the headline, history was overshadowed by the “political vitriol” that continues to cling to the health care law, just as the vitriol has injected itself into and overshadowed the legislation (with consistent help from the Journal) since the law was passed by Congress and signed by the president more than three years ago.

The full headline on Sunday’s story had a lower deck, which acknowledged the historic nature of the rollout, but it was scattered with yet more negatives. The second deck said, “Historic health care law launches amid confusion, anticipation and animosity.”

In contrast, the online edition of the same story carried a less jaded headline: “Obamacare starting Oct. 1, changing U.S. health insurance.” (This same headline also appeared on the last of three segments of the print edition story, which jumped twice from A1.)

The overview written by staff writer Winthrop Quigley had its priorities right – focusing on the momentousness of the start of Obamacare – describing it in the second sentence as “a federal program designed to assure that, in 2014, nearly everyone will have a way to pay for health care and that no one can be denied coverage.” Backing up its historic nature, the story continued with:

Not since Medicare was in enacted in 1965 has a government social program been designed to touch so many lives.

But there was no ignoring the “political vitriol” he referenced later, as the story of Obamacare’s launch ended up sharing the entire top half of the front page with an Associated Press report from Washington, D.C., headlined, “House votes for delays in health law.”

In summarizing the opposition, Quigley’s wrote:

The political vitriol accompanying Obamacare is historic as well. Polls show large numbers of Americans don’t understand the act and don’t like it. The debate over the Affordable Care Act helped spawn the tea party movement. Organizations like the Club for Growth have spent millions of dollars trying to sabotage it. Not a single Republican voted for it when it passed the Congress in 2010, and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have voted dozens of times to repeal it.

Note the reference to sabotage by the Club for Growth, to which Journal readers were introduced just the previous Sunday (Sept. 22) via a Washington Post story. More on that in a minute.

Then notice this line from Quigley’s summary:

Polls show large numbers of Americans don’t understand the act and don’t like it.

This line – with no disrespect to Quigley’s reportage, which has been outstanding since the ACA was first introduced – summarizes the mantra the Journal has repeated over and over elsewhere with regard to the ACA — through its headlines, placement of stories and thrust of its editorials. Once, the editorial board even threw in a line about the “unpopular” ACA in an attempt to buttress negativity toward the RailRunner – another target of Journal disfavor.

In reviewing its ACA coverage over the last three years, Journal stories that were reported in a neutral manner stand out as anomalies. Those stories, of course, hold more value for the reader, and if there had been more of them, perhaps there would be less “confusion.” And perhaps polls would no longer show “large numbers of Americans” unable to understand or “like” the ACA.

Just two days before the launch, the Sunday Journal acknowledged the inevitability and impact of the ACA by packing the paper with ACA-related stories that took up nearly the entire A and C sections of the paper.

In addition to two-thirds of the front page, Quigley’s locally focused story jumped to cover all of an inside page (with a sidebar) and on to nearly half of a third page. This local focus continued today (Sept. 30) with the New Mexico angle that the state says it’s ready for 170,000 more people to enroll in Medicaid.

But Sunday also had the House story on A1, which jumped to fill nearly all the non-ad space on A3. “Bracing for Obamacare” – another headline with a negative connotation, this time in huge 72-point type – accompanied an AP story on the Sunday Dimension page in Section C, which explained that ACA “will allow millions of substance abusers to get treatment, if services can match demand.”

The rest of the Dimension page was filled with an informational story and graphic about tax credits, a just-the-facts story with neutral headlines:

Doing the Math – The ACA: What’s it mean for you?

Family size, income and where you live will determine the impact on your bottom line

The Journal’s three-page Wall Street Journal feature in its Money section (also in Section C) contained two half-pages of ACA informational stories.

Some of what readers needed to know about ACA was in those stories, but it was a lot to plow through. In the run-up to launch, we’ve rarely been given usable information but instead have read about “53 plan options available to buyers” in 36 states (A3, Sept. 25); implementation for small firms delayed – and the Spanish version of the web site isn’t ready! (A1, Sept. 27). And of course, we’ve had the congressional sideshow, with stories telling us “Facing financial calamity is the new normal” as conservative groups and tea party lawmakers demanded that health care funding be stripped (A3, Sept. 24).

Of all the recent local stories about the ACA, however, the one that provided (in this reader’s eyes) the most practical information didn’t appear in the Journal. Easy to understand and containing actual information, the short story in the Sept. 18 (Edgewood) Independent practically leapt off the page because of its usefulness, reporting on information given out by Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-N.M.) at a town hall in Moriarty. It’s accessible here (scroll down to the top of page 3).

The Journal ran much the same information, but a full week later, and it appeared under the unfortunate headline “NM exchange insurance below national average,” which left the impression New Mexico’s insurance plans are sub-par, when in fact the story’s point was that New Mexico insurance plans cost less.

So, if the ACA is confusing to the public, it has become so because of the information put out by those fighting implementation of the health care law and the media outlets that helped them deliver that message. And now that the law is taking effect, opponents are using direct advertising to dissuade people from signing up (encouraging them instead to pay the fines) as evidenced by this ghastly campaign funded by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers.

What could be called sabotage has also been reported by companies that successfully applied for federal grants to serve as ACA navigators, who would help eliminate confusion by informing the public about available insurance plans. One firm that for decades helped people enroll in Medicaid, the Texas-based Cardon Outreach, returned more than $800,000 in federal grant money because it said it was being subjected to time-consuming scrutiny from GOP members of Congress. One Ohio firm told NPR it was being asked to fill out hundreds of pages of congressional inquiries – this, after having already received its grant – leaving the navigators with no time to train people for the job intended by the grant: explaining ACA to Americans who could benefit from being covered.

Consumer confusion has been created by the law’s opponents, and newspapers like the Journal have exacerbated that confusion by constantly referring to confusion as a byproduct of the law, rather than as a byproduct of the vitriol.

And now back to the Club for Growth. One might have missed the Washington Post story that ran at the very bottom of the last page of the Journal’s Dimension page Sept. 22. But it’s worth a read. Here are the headlines the Journal put on it:

Dividing and Conquering

Club for Growth’s combative style gains followers

Conservative campaign finance group sticks to hard line despite claims of harming GOP, country

From the story:

The first sign that Republican leaders could not control their new majority came on a vote to help Americans who lose their jobs to foreign workers. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) considered the measure routine and in February 2011 put it on a list of bills expected to pass without objection.

Enter the Club for Growth. Flush with power after helping to elect 13 House members and defeat two veterans in the Senate, the conservative campaign-finance machine blasted out an e-mail declaring its opposition to extending the 40-year-old retraining program, which it called “inappropriate for a country devoted to free markets and a limited government.”

Within hours, like-minded lawmakers protested. Cantor abruptly canceled the vote in a display of party chaos that was astonishing at the time.

It’s not so astonishing anymore. Since then, the Club for Growth has repeatedly embarrassed House leaders, helping to torpedo Speaker John A. Boehner’s “fiscal cliff” strategy, the recent farm bill — even bland (Eric) Cantor initiatives aimed at helping the uninsured and sick kids with cancer. After spending millions to empower the anti-government right, the Club has become the proud sponsor of congressional gridlock.

How extreme is this group? As this story and Montogomery’s follow-ups suggest, Club for Growth is willing to harm the country in pursuit of its “free markets and limited government.”

And the item currently getting top billing on the Club for Growth’s web site is the C-Span video of the self-serving Senate-floor remarks on Obamacare that were made by Texas Republican Ted Cruz last week– all 21-plus hours.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Denise Tessier

    Worth a read: Win Quigley’s column on the history of the ACA –http://www.abqjournal.com/272290/news/critics-miss-the-point-of-affordable-care-act.html?paperboy=loggedin630am

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