WASHINGTON -- Health care reform is said to be in trouble partly because of those raucous August town hall meetings in which Democratic members of Congress were besieged by shouters opposed to change.
But what if our media-created impression of the meetings is wrong? What if the highly publicized screamers represented only a fraction of public opinion? What if most of the town halls were populated by citizens who respectfully but firmly expressed a mixture of support, concern and doubt?
There is an overwhelming case that the electronic media went out of their way to cover the noise and ignored the calmer (and from television's point of view "boring") encounters between elected representatives and their constituents.
It's also clear that the anger that got so much attention largely reflects a fringe right-wing view opposed to all sorts of government programs most Americans support. Much as the far left of the anti-war movement commanded wide coverage during the Vietnam years, so now are extremists on the right hogging the media stage -- with the media's complicity.
Over the last week, I've spoken with Democratic House members, many from highly contested districts, about what happened in their town halls. None would deny polls showing that the health reform cause lost ground last month, but little of the probing civility that characterized so many of their forums was ever seen on television.
"I think the media coverage has done a disservice by falling for a trick that you'd think experienced media hands wouldn't fall for: of allowing loud voices to distort the debate," said Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, whose district includes Columbus, Ohio.
At her town halls, she said, "I got serious questions, I got hostile questions, I got questions about how this would work, I got questions about how much it will cost. I also got a lot of comments from people who said it's important for their families and businesses to get health care reform."
Rep. Frank Kratovil hails from a very conservative district on Maryland's Eastern Shore and says it didn't bother him that he was hung in effigy in July by a right-wing group. "As a former prosecutor, I consider that to be mild," he said with a chuckle. The episode, he added, was not at all typical of his town-hall meetings where "most of the people were there to express legitimate concerns about the bill, wondering about how it was going to impact them" and also wanting "to know the truth about some of the things that were being said about the bill."
The most disturbing account came from Rep. David Price of North Carolina, who spoke with a stringer for one of the television networks at a large town-hall meeting he held in Durham.
The stringer said he was one of 10 people around the country assigned to watch such encounters. Price said he was told flatly: "Your meeting doesn't get covered unless it blows up." As it happens, the Durham audience was broadly sympathetic to reform efforts. No "news" there.
Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas is one member who did attend gatherings dominated by boisterous opponents of health reform.
At a meeting in Waco, a man asked him what constitutional authority the federal government had to get involved in health care. Edwards replied, "Article One, Section Eight," which includes authority for Congress to provide for the "general welfare of the United States." Then Edwards asked the man if he opposed "the federal government being involved in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and children's health care." The man said he was, and the room roared its approval.
"I will wear it as a badge of honor that I was shouted at by people who oppose Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and children's health," Edwards said. The shouters, he added, did not speak for most of his constituents, but for "the Ron Paul libertarian position that represents 2 to 5 percent of the country."
When I reached Rep. Tom Perriello last week, he divided the crowds at the 17 town halls he had held to that point in his largely rural Virginia district into three groups: conservatives, for whom the health care battle is "about big government, socialism and all that"; the left, for whom "it's about corporate accountability"; and a "middle" for whom "it's about health care costs" and the problems with their coverage.
But the only citizens who commanded widespread media coverage last month were the right-wingers. And I bet you thought the media were "liberal."
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group