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What ESPN Could Teach the News Media About Covering Town Halls

Anthony Wright is executive director of Health Access California, the statewide health care consumer advocacy coalition. He blogs daily at the Health Access WeBlog and is a regular contributor to the Treatment.

When asked “Where are these lies from?” at the Organizing for America National Town Hall Meeting on August 20th, President Obama all but pointed to a certain television network:

Well, look, we know where these lies are coming from, I mean, I don't think it's any secret. If you just flick channels and then stop on certain ones--(laughter and applause)--then you'll see--you know, you'll see who's propagating this stuff.

It’s true: The Fox network has done more than any other network to showcase the protesters at health care town halls. And the coverage has been a lot like Fox’s reality shows: The more outrageous, the more likely you’ll end up on TV or YouTube. A sign referencing Nazis will get you on the local news. Shouting in a Senator’s face gets an radio interview afterwards. Bring a gun, and you get your full interview on a cable news program. After the first gun-toter made the rounds, the question wasn’t why there was a dozen folks packing outside the next presidential event, but why weren’t there more?

Everybody deserves a chance to speak his or her mind; nobody disputes that. But how much attention should the media give these people? It seems to me this is one case when the political media--or, at least, Fox--could take its cues from the sports media.

When fans at a professional sporting event try to make a spectacle of themselves--by being unruly or abusive, or running onto the field--the networks go out of their way to avoid showing it. Why? Because providing airtime to the disrupters would give too much incentive for others to do the same at stadiums across the country. Similarly, the media should focus on the issues of health reform, rather than the rude and belligerent behavior of a relative few.

It seems clear to me that the protests are less about the substance of the health reforms--which is often attacked with claims that have no basis in reality--and more about a vehicle to oppose President Obama, for whatever reason. They are merely the second episode to the “tea party” programming that Fox News sponsored earlier in the year, where the channel even provided the headline speakers across the country, including here in Sacramento. (Those were similarly disconnected from actual policy, as it was an anti-tax protest directed at the stimulus which actually included a major tax cut.)

Mark Halperin at Time magazine, who was critical of the media for a perceived pro-Obama bias, has been scathing of the media’s role regarding the town hall protestors. Media can’t deny that they way they are covering this is having an impact. For the media outlets that are not actively organizing the opposition as a few are, they each unfortunately chose to focus their stories on the equivalent of the hooligans in the stands, rather than the key issues in the health reform debate itself, which is the actual ballgame.

The only saving grace is that now that the story that has fully migrated from Fox to the mainstream media, the turnout at these town halls meetings has shifted in favor of supporters--at least based on my experience in California and what I’m reading from around the country. Within 24 hours of hearing about a protest in front of an office of Senator Diane Feinstein, health reform supporters turned out and outnumbered them five to one. A town hall last week with Representative Adam Schiff, a Californian Blue Dog who supports health reform, turned out nearly 3,000 people--hundreds for both sides, but with supporters outnumbering opponents. As much as my organization and allied groups would like to take credit, you wouldn’t have had that kind of turnout from either side if this hadn’t turned into a media phenomenon.

But even with supporters consistently outnumbering opponents of health reform, it still only takes a small number of rude, outrageous, and badly-behaved folks to dominate a meeting. By rewarding unruliness, by letting a small group of screamers shove their way onto television news and into the national conversation, the media may have set a standard they’ll come to regret later.