TV coverage of the health care reform process focussed mostly on the political gamesmanship surrounding the bill, with very little time spent on what was actually in the bill itself. According to Slate's Dan Gross, the irony of the horserace coverage was that for all the prognosticating the pundits did, they were mostly wrong.
Political journalists covering the health care reform process suffered a malady that often afflicts members of their breed, horserace fever. They spent most of their time guessing whether the bill would pass or fail, and mostly they guessed wrong. When Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson went on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC show Hardball in January and told him that Senate Democrats planned to pass the bill using the reconciliation process, Matthews scoffed.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Do you want to bet 30 days or less we'll have a Health Care Bill passed through the process of reconciliation?
ALAN GRAYSON: I believe so -
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You predict it?
ALAN GRAYSON: - because America needs it.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: You predict it? [LAUGHS]
ALAN GRAYSON: I think that it’s the most likely option at this point.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: [LAUGHS] Well, we’ll make a side bet it’s not going to happen. Anybody -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It happened, though it took two months, not the 30 days Grayson had predicted. Dan Gross is a columnist at Slate and Newsweek. He’s got a theory about why the pundits would have gone broke if bets like Matthews’ had involved actual cash. Dan, welcome back to the show.
DAN GROSS: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ever since Scott Brown’s election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat in January, it’s been the conventional wisdom on the health care reform bill that it was going to fail. That was, of course, until it didn't. Now, you found a way to measure that conventional wisdom. What did you do?
DAN GROSS: Well, there’s a political futures market called Intrade where people trade contracts based on current events, you know, who will win this election? Will health care pass by June, 2010? And those have a monetary value. They pay off at a hundred, if the event happens, and they pay off at zero if it doesn't happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s gambling.
DAN GROSS: And after Brown was elected, people thought there was only a one in five chance of it happening by June. And even as late as mid-March, when passage was just three days away, people were only giving it an 80 percent chance, even at a time when the votes seemed to be locked up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the conventional wisdom derived from?
DAN GROSS: I think those futures tradings are just people parroting the conventional wisdom that they're reading in the media. They're reading the polls, they're watching talking heads. And the prevailing narrative about health care was it wasn't going to happen. Even after both [LAUGHS] the House and the Senate had passed it, they still thought it wasn't going to happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why were the media so wrong?
DAN GROSS: I think basically since Obama’s appearance on the scene, the establishment and the media in general have essentially shorted him. In other words -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Sold him short.
DAN GROSS: They've sold him short. If he was a stock, they would be betting that he would fail. The Clintons shorted him, the media shorted him. Remember when he couldn't win because of Reverend Wright; he couldn't get white voters? The GOP shorted him, obviously. They thought they were going to beat him pretty handily. Econo-pundits. Michael Boskin, who was the Bush economic advisor, wrote this famous Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal in March 2009, saying Obama’s radicalism is killing the Dow. The Dow has risen 70 percent since then. It’s in the media, it’s in the economic world in this whole sort of complex of talking head-dom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why have the media shorted him?
DAN GROSS: Well, the simplest argument is that most of the people talking about this on TV and in print and online don't know what they're talking about.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, if you’re looking for deep political wisdom from Wolf Blitzer, you know, that’s like fishing for manta rays in the Gowanus Canal.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But one of the reasons, I think, is that so much of what we've seen in the last couple of years is unprecedented. We never had an African-American candidate before. In most people’s lifetimes we have not seen an economy that was shrinking at a six-percent annual rate. When people are encountered with things that haven't happened before, they have a tough time predicting what’s going to happen. On top of that, I think there is this larger narrative that, you know, the Democrats are incompetent. They screwed up health care, they screwed up their majorities, when they had them in ’93, ’94. Therefore, they will do so again. I think one of the other reasons people thought health care was doomed was because of the success in sort of mainlining and mainstreaming GOP talking points. There are substantial chunks of the media – the Wall Street Journal editorial page and increasingly its news pages, FOX News, a online publication that rhymes with Schmolitico –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] – that effectively give over huge amounts of space to publishing Republican talking points.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you make this coverage better reflect reality?
DAN GROSS: I think one of the things we have to do is get away from the culture of stenography, which is the people who consider themselves the straight-up political reporters, they will ask someone for a quote, what do you think about health care? And then John Boehner will say, well, it means Armageddon - it’s the end of freedom - which is an absurd thing to say. But you have to get a Democratic quote, a Republican quote, a liberal quote, a conservative quote, and what you end up doing when you do that is just regurgitating talking points that don't have any real relevance to what the debate is about. You know, if you need a quote, and you do need quotes to fill out your pieces, why include the one that you know is absurd -
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - from the left or the right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. Daniel, thank you so much.
DAN GROSS: Anytime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Gross is a columnist for Slate and Newsweek.