Monday, August 17, 2009

"Bye Bye Public Option?" Dangerously Misleading Headlines.

"Frames are principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters."
(Gitlin 1980: 6)

So I awoke to Facebook link-posts this morning to news that "The White House Appears to Drop 'Public Option,'" or even "'Public Option' Proposal Dead". Sure enough my mailing of political headlines from Slate Magazine reconfirmed the supposedly irrevocable: Obama had given in to the astroturf mobs and Rightwing Rumor Bombers. "Bye-Bye Public Option," Daniel Politi wrote in Slate. Looking further into those articles, I realized that this was a dangerously misleading frame/interpretation/emphasis of some comments made by Administration officials.

The most widely circulated article about the alleged Obama dropping of the Obama healthcare hot potato was by the AP. "Bowing to Republican pressure and an uneasy public," the AP wrote, "President Obama's administration signaled Sunday it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system." Okay, "ready to abandon." That's strong stuff, considering all the Town Hall hoopla of the last week.

Still not getting to the real kernel that allowed this defeatist inference, the article frames the public-option as a "liberal" (real universally positive label) initiative, the dropping of which could allow Obama the option of compromising with "GOP" (not "conservative or right-wing) lawmakers: "Such a concession probably would enrage Obama's liberal supporters but could deliver a much-needed victory on a top domestic priority opposed by GOP lawmakers."

This liberal/GOP frame makes it look like noone but a "liberal" (whatever that is) could be for the program. But the real evidence or statements from which this inference were made came half-way down the page. The dead public option claim is based first on a comment by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is paraphrased to have "said that government alternative to private health insurance is 'not the essential element' of the administration's health care overhaul. The White House would be open to co-ops, she said, a sign that Democrats want a compromise so they can declare a victory." They took "not the essential element" and inferred that the "public-option" was dead for Obama and everyone else?

They finally get to Obama's Press Secretary and Obama himself. Yet they say Press Secretary Robert Gibbs "refused to say a public option was a make-or-break choice." It's a powerful interpretation, one might say biased, to then headline these comments that the public option is "dead" or that Obama "appears ready to drop" it. It's big, big news. But it's a dangerous hyperbole.

Here's what Gibbs said: "What I am saying is the bottom line for this for the president is, what we have to have is choice and competition in the insurance market."

The story also frames Obama as having back pedalled the day before at a townhall meeting in Colorado. "Obama appeared to hedge his bets," they said before the following quote:

"All I'm saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of health care reform....This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."

Well, it may be fair to assume Obama has opened the debateable options, but interpret that he has abandoned the public option, or that it's "dead"? That's a very political, biased framing of the statements.

It's also dangerous because many people may have the impression that the fake grassroots disrupters (astroturfers) at town hall meetings were actually representative of the majority of Americans. Some public opinion scholars would suggest there could be a bandwagon and a spiral of silence effect based on those representations. People often don't want to feel like they're a small opposed minority and so they keep quiet, thinking they're outnumbered. Or they want to be part of the majority, so they hop on the wagon. Then there's the problem of all the Death Panel and other Rumor Bombs and the difficult-to-guage effect they've had. (Also note how some of these defeatist frames have a visual frame that symbolizes Obama as weary, wiping the tired sweat from his brow) Framing Obama as having caved into opponents here invites a perception that the Rumor Bombs and the thugs at town hall's were right all along.

But now tonight, I read just the opposite, as if Obama is responding to the media framing snowjob of this morning. "Obama Still Favors Public Health Plan," says CNN tonight. Even the Heritage Foundation Blog notes that the administration is trying to correct this wrong impression about the President's position. They also claim the Administration says Sebelius "misspoke": "An anonymous administration official told that Sebelius “misspoke” and White House health reform communications director Linda Douglass released a statement explaining:
"Nothing has changed. The president has always said that what is essential is that health-insurance reform must lower costs, ensure that there are affordable options for all Americans and it must increase choice and competition in the health-insurance market. He believes the public option is the best way to achieve those goals.”
Obama's comments Saturday (perhaps even Sebelius's yesterday) were probably a trial ballon (testing the waters) or misspoken, or a combination thereof. But even so, there is nothing in them to warrant the leap that Obama was ready to give up on the public option. Framing matters. It can also be viral and function like a rumor bomb. Who knows what damage has been done. Tomorrow's frames will surely tell the story.

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