Reversing the polarity of the media’s status-quo bias

Now that the health care bill is law, it’s going to get more favorable coverage in the mainstream press.

Now that health care reform is law rather than contested legislation, the tone of mainstream media coverage is likely to shift. The depressing tendency of the press to favor the status quo is suddenly working for us rather than against us.

For example, David Espo’s AP story this morning starts:

Summoned to success by President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage.

“Extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses” isn’t a bad summary of the new law, but no reporter would have described it that way while it was still pending, at least without adding that according to Republicans it would bring on a new epidemic of bubonic plague. Last night was indeed “a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near-universal coverage,” but it wouldn’t have been “objective” to say so.

Update Mark Halperin, who personifies the love of journalists for the team that currently seems to be winning, is even better:

In the 7½ months between now and November’s midterm elections, millions of Americans will be whipped into a frenzy over the purported evils in the Democrats’ health care bill, egged on by Fox News chatter, Rush Limbaugh’s daily sermons, threats of state legislative and judicial action and the solemn pledge of Republicans in Washington to make the fall election a referendum on Obamacare. But in doing so, they may be playing right into the Democrats’ hands.

President Obama gave a strong closing argument in the fortnight leading up to the dramatic March 21 floor votes, delivering speeches in the key states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia and achieving levels of “fired up and ready to go” not seen since his presidential campaign. Such passionate pleas stiffened the spines of his party brethren, who have been anticipating and dreading months of over-the-top rhetoric about the ruinous consequences of a Democrats-only effort to bring the U.S. into the community of nations that make health care available to all of their citizens. Indeed, not every Democratic member of Congress has embraced the White House theme that doing the right thing for the nation is more important than preserving individual seats in the Capitol. But enough hearts and minds were changed to allow the Obama-Pelosi tag team to get its majority at long last.


The President … may be indifferent to the acrid fussing of his Republican foes. He will be able to bask once again in the glow of positive press coverage (accented by a momentous signing ceremony), which will focus on four areas helpful to the Democrats’ prospects in November: the masterful display of White House patience and competence that got the job done; the elements of the legislation that are in fact consistently popular with large numbers of Americans, such as its insurance-company crackdowns; the return of the meme that Republicans are the party of No; and the accompanying rising poll numbers for the Administration and the new law.

In their comments in the House debate on March 21, Republicans often sounded shrill and angry, sometimes hysterical. This is a real danger for a party that since the 2008 Obama-McCain contest has aimed to appeal to die-hard conservatives at the expense of a broader-based constituency. The illusory belief that a majority can be built from a finite core of animated and agitated souls is what kept Democrats out of the White House for most of the 1970s and ’80s, and Republicans are in danger of duplicating that error.


The coverage through November likely will highlight the most extreme attacks on the President and his law and spotlight stories of real Americans whose lives have been improved by access to health care (pushed, no doubt, by Democrats from every competitive congressional district and state). The louder Republicans yell, the more they will be characterized and caricatured as sore losers infuriated by the first major delivery of candidate Obama’s promise of “change.”


Large segments of the American business community are going to present a formidable ally for Obamacare, either with outspoken support or notable silence.


The President and his allies will argue mightily in the coming days that the great war over health care has ended. Republicans certainly will make the case that the crusade has just begun. In this semantic skirmish, the White House, bolstered by the momentum of victory and allies old and new, is girded for combat.

The desire to be with the winner is not a very admirable trait, but it is extremely common and powerful, not less among the masses than among the media elite. While it seemed that Obama was losing power, his enemies were emboldened and his friends cowed. Now that engine is working in reverse.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

19 thoughts on “Reversing the polarity of the media’s status-quo bias”

  1. "now that health care reform is law"

    Mark, in case you didn't notice, health care reform is not technically law yet. I know, I know, there ain't no rules around here, we make them up as we go along.

  2. Where will the press find these Americans who now have access to health care? Are we to think that the $5 billion for high risk pools is going to be the focus for the next few months?

    It's true that there will be elements in the business community who support the law. Walmart is a prominent supporter, right? And the big drug companies are on board. I'm sure they will be valuable allies for the Democrats in the coming months.

  3. If nothing else, they will find the people with access to health care among young people with pre-existing conditions, who can get back on/stay on their parents' plans.

  4. What can Halperin possibly be referring to when he writes, "The illusory belief that a majority can be built from a finite core of animated and agitated souls is what kept Democrats out of the White House for most of the 1970s and ’80s"? Is this yet another example of the media's valuing balance over truth? Since Republican politicians have been pandering to tea-partiers, that must mean that Democratic politicians have been pandering to — whom? Michael Moore? Al Sharpton?

  5. Matt-yes, the 24 year old finding himself on a backpacking trip through Europe and Southeast Asia now can continue to be covered by his well-to-do parents' insurance. If he takes a low paying job with an employer who offers insurance though, he's out of luck.

  6. Thomas – yes, and the 20 year old finding herself with only office secretary temp jobs after graduating with two engineering degrees can continue to be covered by her middle-class parents' insurance. Like I was, graduating into the last major recession. It was pure luck that I didn't get hit by a car and bankrupt myself and my parents. But thanks for the compassion there.

  7. How powerful – the government can now command a private insurer to sell insurance to someone despite pre-existing conditions. Can I soon get some auto insurance despite having three DUIs and a vehicular homicide conviction? Can I get an affordable $500,000 term life insurance policy after the doctor gives me three months to live? Can I get flood insurance for my house after the levees break? How about maternity coverage after the EPT shows positive?

    I guess our fine Congress can sock it to the insurance companies now, and then bail them out with tax money later, and then consolidate them, and then we'll be at single-payer for all types of insurance! Have we made a step towards a risk-free, responsibility-free, reward-free existence? Is this the "freedom" we really want?

  8. "… the government can now command a private insurer to sell insurance to someone despite pre-existing conditions. Can I soon get some auto insurance despite having three DUIs and a vehicular homicide conviction?" – MKS

    You're absolutely right, that person with the pre-existing condition should just go away and die. Nobody with his/her drinking habits and disastrous driving skills deserves to live. And secretly they're all goddamn alcoholics, aren't they!

  9. Unfortunately, MKS, that you see the two situations as parallel says a lot about conservative mindset. If a person with multiple DUIs, etc. cannot get insurance and thereby cannot drive (not a sure thing by any means), then he or she is inconvenienced as a result of bad choices. A person who gets sick with diabetes or cancer isn't making a conscious choice and the result of not being able to get insurance will be far greater than mere inconvenience to self. Unless you think sickness is the result of lack of personal virtue, the two aren't even close.

    And yes, I understand that some personal choices do sometimes seem to add up, over time, to the equivalent of multiple DUIs, but these so-called "lifestyle choices" are not inherently wrongful — indeed, they are often the result of broad social policies (pedestrian unfriendly communities, subsidized bad food choices) that are actively pushed by policy makers. Unlike drunk driving, which has been actively discouraged for a long time now. The only real exception is smoking — and people are expected to pay more if they smoke.

  10. Suppose that, through no fault of my own, I have kidney failure and am on dialysis, and you have two good kidneys that are an excellent match for me. Do I have a right to your kidney? Is it fair that you have two good ones and I have none?

    Perhaps the government should keep a database of blood samples and tissue types. Then, when someone has kidney failure, the government can immediately determine the optimal match and direct that person to report to the designated hospital for his "donation".

    I think a truly voluntary donation is a real an act of compassion and heroism. Compulsory "compassion" is, however, often evil and somewhat horrible – even in matters of life and death. Government force should be used to protect you from someone coming along and taking your kidney – not empowering me to require one of your kidneys.

  11. Another totally inapt comparison. The health care bill doesn't enact mandatory organ donation.

  12. Morfydd, parents are not responsible for the debts of their adult children, and so they can't be bankrupted by them, and a 20 year old without a good job presumbably lacks significant assets and so has little to fear from bankruptcy. The only loser in a bankruptcy would have been the health care provider. More importantly, given the limited resources provided, it seems to me there should be some justification for giving advantages to those whose parents have health insurance while those whose parents don't have health insurance don't receive benefits. If I were to guess, I'd guess that those whose parents had health insurance have already received many advantages in life; why did they need one more? (Should we look at the racial demographics of those receiving this handout? Want to bet that there are a disproportionately large number of whites who are eligible? Thank god Republicans didn't put this one forward, or Mark would be screaming raaaacism.)

  13. MKS, if they could remove not your whole kidney but a small and dispensible part of your kidney from your bank account and from the bank accounts of many other people like you, without interfering with your body, then maybe your analogy would hold.

    As it happens, I'm on the bone marrow registry precisely because I might be able to help a stranger and getting a monstrous needle stabbed into one of my bones sounds unpleasant but I'm willing to imagine undergoing it to save a life; indeed, providing a blood sample (and a little money; the registry operates as a charity) seems like the least I can do for my fellow man. I'm not on a live kidney donor database (and, indeed, I don't even know if there is such a thing) because genuine surgery scares me a bit. Which is more reason why your comparison is inapt.


    The only loser in a bankruptcy would have been the health care provider.

    Well, except for the patient. Remember them? Think going through a bankruptcy is easy, and works well combined with major medical problems? Think the indigent really get the same level of care as the insured? Why do you want their misfortune to bankrupt them, anyway?

  14. I can find a young person who can now get insurance, right in the building where I work. A co-worker's daughter, now at college, had a malignant brain tumor when she was 8-10 years old. The tumor was taken care of with chemo, but the girl was uninsurable — until Sunday night.

    Now. Please explain to me how I should tell my co-worker that that's a bad thing, or that her daughter should just go without treatment if she ever has a recurrence of cancer. Because that sure sounds like what you're talking about.

    When did we become a nation that just threw people away?

  15. The commenters here discussing fairness should consider the true unfairness of the present system of insurance. It is illustrated by a friend of mine's circumstance.

    Kathy injured her back on the job in her twenties. She has lived with chronic and increasing pian and a degenerating condition since. Last year she became so debilitated that she went on disability. Surgery can help but complications have delayed this option. After a year elapsed her employer hired a permanant replacement so her insurance lapsed forcing her to pay two thirds more for coverage on COBRA. She expects that to double in a few months. She doesn't know if she can keep it up.

    So here is a woman in her fifties who has payed for insurance for thirty some years and just when she needs coverage she won't have it.

    Does anyone seriously think this is some coincidence? Does any one think this is a rare case? This is the plan. This is how insurance companies collect vast amounts of wealth and then beat the liability they have already been paid for. It is just one tactic of many used to cheat americans out of their money and leave them to suffer and die or to dump them on the public where they recieve inadequate care.

    Talk about personal responsibility and hypothetical rich kid slackers on hiking trips while freeloading is all diversion from the truth. America is in trouble because americans are being cheated by health insurance companies. They are being cheated because the law allows it. As Howard Dean said: "The people who like their health insurance are the ones who have never had to use it." If you think you are covered just because you are paying your premiums wait until you get really sick.

    For some reason coservatives always seem to become liberals when the world crashes down on them. Before that they tell everybody how people should be personally responsible like they are. When tragedy strikes someone, there but for the grace of God go all of us.

  16. In a round-about way this post brings to mind a Krauthammer (of all people) post that was blurbed in the latest The Week. Titled "In Praise of The Rotation of Power", in essence it was an appreciation of the fact that while messy and bitterly fought over, democracy is fundamentally a healthy and self-affirming process. To the extent that the media plays its role – even at once wonderfully critical and maddeningly incompetent, it's worth remembering that it is democracy's lifeblood. For all its sickness and failings, it remains the medium through which we digest all parts large and small. The simple fact of its continued existence provides a reassuring forward momentum.

    Was that as terrible as I suspect? (!!!)

  17. "Government force should be used to protect you from someone coming along and taking your kidney – not empowering me to require one of your kidneys." – MKS

    Calm down, you may not have noticed this, but government force actually is protecting you from having one of your kidneys taken against your will.

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