Thursday, June 25, 2009

Prescription for America Proves Sour Medicine

"Prescription for America" was billed as a debate by ABC, and its airing proved to be a television event -- if for nothing else its uniqueness -- however, I could smell the bullshit in D.C. from my Georgia apartment.

I just reread Harry Frankfut's "On Bullshit" this week, and here is a brief extract that might make advance my point:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Bullshitting means misrepresenting what it is you aim to do. ABC bullshitted us, and so did Obama. "Prescription" was not a debate. The other side of the healthcare debate -- namely, alternative plans -- was not represented, and indeed was misrepresented. Most people agree that the current healthcare system is broken, but rather than debating the merits of Obama's plan against alternatives like single-payer healthcare, what we saw was Obama's plan vs. the broken system. We were inundated by it and rhetoric from Obama reinforcing that dyad:

In terms of cost, understand that the system is already out of whack in terms of costs as it is. So if we do nothing, costs are going to keep on going up 6 percent, 7 percent, 8 percent per year, and government, businesses and families are all going to find themselves either losing their health care or paying a lot more out of pocket. That's going to happen if we do nothing.

I don't think the issue of unsustainability is under much dispute, but simply because the current system is terrible doesn't make Obama's plan the best plan, only a better one. Instead, ABC's format framed Obama's plan as the only alternative, closing the door on what would be a genuine debate.

Gibson and Sawyer appeared to play devil's advocate, but in reality they lobbed Obama a series of softball opposition questions which he either hit out of the park or completely sidestepped -- in true political form he was. But to the credit of Gibson and Sawyer, and I can't believe I said that, they had to navigate tough journalistic waters (though I do not consider Sawyer, a fellow Louisvillian and former Nixon aid, to be a journalist or even a hack for that mater). They had to "report" a story in which they were intimately involved, and without the proper distance it's difficult to maintain objectivity. Moreover, forcing them to act as opposition moves them from moderators to some strange opponent/moderator hybrid that was just awkward and inappropriate.

No, not a debate, but rather a speech with interruption -- some, ironically, paid for by McDonald's. Obama had a chance to pitch his argument against a straw man whom he burned to the ground, all while ABC tried desperately to grasp for journalistic integrity, misrepresenting what amounted to a persuasive speech as a deliberative debate. All this mess gives Obama more weight with the public and, I fear, undue credibility to the viability of his plan as compared to alternatives.

My purpose here, as media student and a bit of a junky, has been to critique the presentation of Obama's plan, not the plan itself. Though I recognize some major problems that could arise -- particularly in terms of cost, implementation, and adequate primary care coverage -- I feel like his plan is workable, and uniquely American, which is not a bad thing. Each country deals with healthcare differently, and though I like the single-payer plan, the competitive platitudes of American business would never allow it. I guess I feel his plan is not the best, but it might be the best we can do. Unfortunately, that is not the sense last night's viewers got.

I will say this in closing. It was nice to witness a few bright spots from Obama, who I feel has been timid about many issues lately (gay marriage, bank regulation, the handling of Guantanamo, etc.). For better of for worse, I feel like he's really going to go to bat for us over healthcare, and it's about time he lived up to his promises and we got something done. Here's and example of what I'm talking about:

GIBSON: "Your critics on the Republican side of the Senate Finance Committee wrote you a letter and said: 'At a time when major government programs like Medicare and Medicaid are already on a path to fiscal insolvency, creating a brand new program will not only worsen our long-term financial outlook, but also negatively impact American families who enjoy private coverage for their insurance. What do you say to them?"
OBAMA: "They're wrong."

He's finally sacking up and taking command of this wayward bipartisan ship, and it's long overdue. Also, I was impressed with the way he addressed the socialism fear surrounding the public option of his plan:

So we would have -- I think there are some legitimate questions in terms of how the public option is designed. One thing I have to say, though, is, it's not an entirely bad thing if, as long as they're reimbursing doctors in an adequate way, and -- and -- and so not being oppressive on -- on health care providers, and as long as there are not a whole bunch of taxpayer subsidies going into a public plan, if the public plan can do it cheaper and provides good quality care, that's the competition that we talked about.

Though he didn't say it outright, the implication is that if government, in a competitive market can provide a better option, then why shouldn't it? That, I think, is a valid argument. I do wish, though, that in my lifetime a president would out and out say that we already employ several socialist policies (USPS, public schools, social security, medicare, etc.) that have worked well for us in the past and that we also hold dear. Who's to say similar programs would be different, or somehow more socialist?

Still, overall I was incredibly disappointed with this healthcare "debate" and I am fearful of the misinformed discourse it will produce. Obama finally appeared to take a bold stand, and that's an important thing, but I'm not sure it will be worth the potential damaging influence the program could have on even more misinformed public opinion.

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