Since the crowd with 50/50, I tried to talk with people on both sides of the issue. There were many reasonable people who both supported and opposed the bill. The opposition was made up of reasonable people. They had two chief concerns: rationing and the Medicare "death panel" smear spread by Governor Palin. I interviewed one woman who opposed the bill because she thought that the bill would lead to the government pulling the plug on the elderly; this woman was also a Medicare recipient who believed she could be reimbursed for a living will consultation under Medicare at the moment:
I talked with another very nice woman who opposed the bill because she believed the bill would spread abortion. I mentioned the case of Robin Beaton to the woman. Beaton is the Texas nurse who was denied live-saving care by her insurance company because she failed to disclose a previous bout of acne. This woman agreed that she would support a bill to keep situations like Beaton's from happening:
And I talked with a pregnant woman who found it difficult to find the prenatal care she needed because big insurers treated her pregnancy as a pre-existing condition:
These people--whether they were for or against the bill--represented what is good about America. People willing to listen to other viewpoints, and engage in a civilized discussion.
Once I arrived inside the town hall, things were a bit different. The top row was reserved for a fleet of network cameras. People who wanted to have a civilized discussion with their Senator were quickly shouted down by a fringe which made up 2-3 percent of the attendees at the forum. The fringe would yell, and the pack of TV cameras would quickly swarm around the angry person throwing a tantrum. It was like watching moths fly towards a flame.
The result of this was to dissaude the reasonable people I talked with outside of the gathering from asking a question. Speaking in public is a difficult thing for many people to do. Talking in front of a hostile crowd is something that only those most committed to their ideologies do. What was supposed to be a town hall meeting about a policy vital to millions of Americans quickly devolved into a circus.
Senator Cardin did an admirable job of keeping the meeting on track, and trying to point out as many facts as he could. He waffled on the public option, seeming to support it, only to then strongly imply that co-ops were his preferred option. On the bright side, he did commit to amending the bill in order to add a patient's bill of rights. That is a long overdue step, and a much needed check on the abuses of the insurance industry.
But the reality was that the shouts of the fringe were designed to keep facts from being part of the discussion. The reality was that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of my town who attended the meeting left disappointed--disappointed that questions were limited by rude and uncivil behavior on the part of a small fringe that attended this meeting. One prominent Republican, and an opponent of the bill, told me,
"I oppose the bill, but I oppose them (the protesters) more."
While the crowd was filing out of the auditorum, an opponent of the bill who didn't get to ask a question had a meltdown. She charged the stage, and began screaming at the top of her lungs. She got what she wanted--a swarm of television cameras quickly surrounded her. To the press, her meltdown was the dramatic story that riveted everyone in the room; but the people in the room didn't care, and instead were more worried about beating the traffic out of the Community College's two-lane road. Here is a video of the latter part of this incident:
This type of coverage is dangerous for democracy. If the only people who are heard are the fringe screamers of the right and the left, the vasty majority of people who wish to have a civil, respectful debate are frozen out. If our politics is defined by the fringes--both on the left and right--there can be no middle ground to build workable and sustainable solutions to problems like our broken health care system. And if our politics is defined by who can be the angriest, and who can shout the loudest, it will become more and more poisoned. That leads to a very dangerous place.
The media should stop covering these town halls the way they're currently covering them. They're nothing more than another cable news circus. Shark bites are more newsworthy.
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