The long-awaited Senate health care reform bill drops Thursday, and it will be a front-page story in every newspaper in America. Over the next week, this document will be parsed to death by pundits on both sides. It will trigger countless editorials and, quite possibly, foment public protests. There’s no exaggerating it: This is the biggest legislative event of 2017 so far, inaugurating the final stretch of debate over a law poised to achieve one of the GOP’s dearest priorities: repealing and replacing Obamacare.
But even though the effort has been going on for weeks, the bill release Thursday will be the first time much of the media has treated it like an urgent news event.
For the past few weeks, Senate Republicans have been drafting the bill in secret. Knowing that they only need their own side’s votes to pass the bill, they have shut out both the Democrats and the American people from the lawmaking process. Now, there will be only be a brief period for bipartisan discussion before a vote next week.
Compared to the drawn-out discussion over Obamacare in 2009, this effort to repeal it is as rushed and furtive as it gets. It’s the legislative equivalent of throwing sunglasses on a Hollywood starlet and dashing her past the paparazzi line. And while the debate over Obamacare was a prominent news story for weeks, the process of drafting the bill that Senate Republicans call the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 has successfully flown under the radar.
In the past week, many critics have asked why the press has gone along with GOP’s unprecedented opaqueness. But has it really?
News judgment has been devalued in the Trump era
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan blamed editors and televisions producers for downplaying the matter. Where was the wall-to-wall coverage on CNN? Where were the bold New York Times headlines?
The New Republic’s Brian Beutler argued that the lack of emphasis on health care reform in recent weeks reflects the media’s bias toward newness and action. Reporters, unfortunately, are not accustomed to writing about the absence of action. “By withholding details, [Republicans] limit the range of reportorial inquiry to questions about the process itself,” Beutler writes. “Have you seen the bill yet? No. Will you withhold support for the bill unless it runs through an open process? I am very dismayed about the process.”
These are both fair critiques, but the blame doesn’t entirely lie with the media. Sullivan concedes that sites like Politico and the Hill have vigorously covered the matter, and both the Washington Post and the New York Times have written about this topic “almost daily.” Is it their fault that Americans didn’t care or pay attention?
As my colleague Jeff Stein reported, even liberals have been hard pressed to gin up outrage over the Senate bill. “We literally don’t have enough information to motivate people,” one activist told him recently. It is easy to rally people around specific, upsetting provisions in a piece of legislation. It’s much more difficult to organize a protest around unprecedented norm-breaking and lack of good faith.
This, in part, is the media’s job: to warn the public of problems coming down the pike — and to make sure that people pay attention. But news judgment has become devalued in the Trump era. If editors plastered their front page every day with headlines asking “Where’s the bill?” Fox News pundits would accuse them of partisanship. They’d run the risk of further losing credibility among a large swath of Americans.
The danger of living in a time when people choose their own news is that it becomes difficult to mark the evaporation of democratic ideals. The power of the press comes from its ability to motivate public concern, and this may be one of the clearest examples yet of the erosion of the press as an institution. The media has said “this is not normal” a thousand times since Tuesday, but it has been no match for the GOP’s savvy strategy of legislative secrecy. The watchdog is barking, but few are listening.