Last summer, as tempers flared in town halls throughout the country, CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrews described the environment as a “show of August heat.” And in many ways, it was the heat of the health care battle that most interested and influenced the media.
Coverage peaked when the public got the most passionate and when the politics got the most partisan. The press focused far more on the horserace aspects of the legislative struggle than on examining the system it was designed to reform. No one lavished more attention on the subject than the talk show hosts, who spend much of their time engaging in ideological warfare. And the terms that resonated in the media narrative, perhaps most notably “death panels,” were those that packed a polarizing punch.
All of which raises the question of the extent to which the media shed light versus heat when it came to health care reform. Certainly, many outlets did good work covering the numerous layers of the complex issue. But it’s also true that the public seemed consistently confused by the health care debate and had a difficult time sorting out fact from fiction.
That was by no means entirely attributable to the media. But to the extent that the health care experience may shape the rest of the Obama presidency, it may also offer lessons for the journalists who cover it as they navigate in a changing media world.