If a mob forms in a forest …

… and reporters don’t witness it, how much is the story compromised?

We now know that congressional town hall forums on health care have become contentious affairs. The left flashes memos showing organized efforts at disruption and calls alleged grassroots efforts “Astroturf” — fake. The right says sincere citizens are being slagged for dissenting, and adopts “I am the mob” to mock what they see as hysterical or hypocritical stereotyping.

Bringing a phone to a mic fight? Congressman Keith Ellison and a critic at a recent town hall forum.
Bringing a phone to a mic fight? Congressman Keith Ellison and a critic at a recent town hall forum.

So far, Minnesota has not seen the level of violence in places like Tampa and St. Louis. But a recent Strib story noted that Rep. Keith Ellison “struggled for control of the microphone at what should have been a friendly meeting on health care reform at a north Minneapolis clinic,” while fellow Democrat Betty McCollum faced protesters who wouldn’t say whether they even lived in her district.

Sounds spooky and potentially violent, doesn’t it?

Problem is, Strib reporters didn’t go to either congressperson’s town halls. Neither did the Pioneer Press. Or MPR. Or MinnPost. WCCO and Fox9 photojournalists shot video, but neither stayed for the whole event. Anchors later read a producer-written script over the images.

Like the TV producers, Strib political editor Pat Lopez wrote the Ellison mic tussle from video … though it wasn’t her organization’s own. Instead, she relied on this YouTube clip.

You can see the “struggle” at the 2:45 mark of the 4-minute clip. Says Lopez, “Ellison had said he was going to pass the mic around but you could see people clinging to it to make their speeches and at one point, when one man tried to grab the mic, Ellison kept hold of it, pulled away a little and announced that he was going to hold on to the mic — a clear attempt, it seemed, to retain some control over things.”

Like Lopez, I wasn’t there, but I don’t see this the same way. Aside from the one man recounting the pitfalls of Canada’s socialized healthcare, I didn’t see anyone clinging to the mic — it looks like they all made their points in their own time. And with blame-Canada guy, Ellison is only trying to get the mic so the audience will be quiet and show respect. It really wasn’t a tug of war; more a citizen with a head of steam who was just locked into his moment.

In other words, Lopez’s description seems a bit unfair to both sides. Is it tense? Sure, but not unreasonably.

Hard as it may be to believe, it’s possible that video uploaded by some nicknamed “the2012revolt” may have not have shown the most representative four minutes of the 75-minute event.

For example, it appears Ellison refuses to answer one man’s question about whether the congressman would put his family in the public plan. However, his staff says this particular segment was about getting audience views, and the question was later answered, “Yes.”

Likewise, the Strib had to rely on McCollum’s version of the non-communicative potential outsiders — not a single media organization, big or small, attended that event, staffers say.

Of course, newspapers would be pretty skinny and websites bare if journalists could only write about things they actually went to. And hindsight on this one is indeed 20/20. Still, it’s striking that the state’s leading dailies, radio news operation and “thoughtful” website all found the town halls avoidable.

To be sure, such meetings have strikes against them. Many are seances among the believers; toward the end of the YouTube clip, Ellison introduces an audience member, noting “Everybody knows Sister Dorothy, right?” I’m betting the guy with the Canada problem didn’t.

Also, media organizations also have to juggle summer vacation schedules and other news demands. “Neither the Strib nor any other media outlet would typically staff every town hall meeting that held during a congressional recess,” Lopez says. “It was only in retrospect that the significance of what happened at McCollum’s and Ellison’s meetings became clear and was still, in no way, comparable to what’s happening in other parts of the country.”

Every town hall meeting? How about … one?

To me, the collective blackout is the curious part. Health care is a monster issue, and these forums — whatever their faults — represented the first interactions between elected officials and the masses (whether constituents or citizens from elsewhere).

At a time when the media increasingly emphasizes “real people” features of sometimes-dubious newsworthiness, it’s odd that they eschewed this particular source convention.

Of course, now that town halls become flashpoints, coverage plans are ramping up. The Strib story led with an anecdote from FarmFest, which staff reporter Pat Doyle attended. Pioneer Press politics editor Maria Reeve says she and political reporter Bill Salisbury are strategizing about which future meetings to attend “and write about what the representatives and senators are hearing.”

Better late than never. Here’s hoping everyone behaves, and if they don’t, the media can give us an independent assessment of who’s acting out.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/10/2009 - 02:37 pm.

    I thought Ellison handled the situation very well. And I don’t think the behavior of those who I assume disagree with him crossed any lines. Other states could learn from Minnesota’s example in this as in so much else.

  2. Submitted by Jeff Horwich on 08/10/2009 - 02:46 pm.

    Nice post, David. Nothing crazy happening in that video that I can see. Even if that’s the most provocative part of the event, who can read a struggle into that?

    I was struck by the interesting choice of Ellison to hold the mic himself, rather than have a staffer do it, or have people line up at a stationary mic. It’s a nice common-man touch, I guess. But I can say from experience that there is no more guaranteed way to zone out on what people are actually saying than to be the mic-holder. I think I’d rather have my representative sit back and listen.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/10/2009 - 03:49 pm.

    Personally, I think Ellison wanted to pull the mic away from the guy with the Canadian experiences to throw him off his pace. The guy was making some really good points, and it didn’t appear from the video that the people in the background were much of a distraction.

    But then again I was actually listening to what the man had to say.

    The house GOP offered an amendment to put Congress on ObamaCare, but the Democrat majority squashed it like a bug.

    If Ellison says he’s good to go with it, he needs to step up and sign on to the amendment.

    When congress critters all agree to enroll themselves and their families on ObamaCare, I’ll listen to their pitch; it won’t change my mind, but I’ll listen.

    Until that happens, I’ll count myself among those who show up to *tell* my representatives what I want them to do, not to hear marching orders from Rahm Emmanual.

  4. Submitted by Andy Gifford on 08/10/2009 - 05:01 pm.

    There was an episode of “The Simpsons” when an angry mob was forming outside Mayor Quimby’s office after getting excited about a bear sighting in Springfield. The Mayor asks an assistant: “Are these morons getting louder or dumber?” The assistant replies: “Dumber, sir.”.

    I don’t think that there’s any problem in pointing out that folks aren’t looking for a debate; they’re looking to disrupt. There’s nothing “unbalanced” about that, especially since we’ve gotten to the point of threats of violence.

    But it seems like the noise, rather than the substance, is going to keep this debate in the news…and that’s a shame.

  5. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/10/2009 - 05:11 pm.

    We are living in a year of such acceleration of communication and quickly moving politics that five right wing killers are being overlooked. James Von Brunn killed a guard at the holocaust Museum. Richard Poplawski killed 3 policemen in Philadelphia over gun excess. Scott Roeder killed Dr. Tiller in his lutheran church, Jim David Adkisson killed members at a UCC church, another church killing in Colorado. Churches have had to step up their security. 95%+ of the american population has moved on we have become inured to it all.
    And Minnpost why oh why are you devoting resource to the PGA and Tiger. I play golf and I don’t even care about this excess of marketing or are those the only kind of stories that get covered any more.
    People are really interested in true crime, mysteries, devote resource to that and you’ll have hooked readers.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/10/2009 - 05:22 pm.

    There’s no problem with folks coming to town hall meetings to hear what their rep has to say and to tell them what they’d like them to do.

    There is, however, a problem with ill-informed, or stubbornly ignorant people, often from outside that congressional district, showing up to offer misinformation about the health care system in some other part of the world, simply to try to sabotage the meeting (moreso because the government has long since rejected doing anything like Canadian healthcare).

    There is equally a problem with folks who have no idea regarding what changes are possible or what they’d like to see, who are there to say, in effect, don’t do anything! This is especially true since the worst, and most expensive option at this point is to do nothing.

    I have no doubt that any of our senators or representatives would be more than happy to hear ideas for a carefully-thought-out, fiscally feasible, reasonably equitable new approach to nation health care. If you have such a plan, write or call them or go to their next public event.

    But if all you can say about health care is that you don’t like change, or “I’ve got mine!” you’re contributing nothing to the debate. Better to listen and be educated by those who actually know what’s going on (and you won’t find any of them on Weasel News).

  7. Submitted by David Brauer on 08/10/2009 - 05:31 pm.

    Andy, you make a great point: don’t just cover the fracas factor, use the attendees to tell real stories of real heathcare situations and how this plan affects them.

  8. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 08/10/2009 - 06:41 pm.

    And why aren’t more “reporters” doing what the Green Bay reporter did when he/she looked into the identity and background of a disruptive citizen?

  9. Submitted by B Maginnis on 08/10/2009 - 06:45 pm.

    Buechler’s (and other reasonable peoples’) plea will go unheeded as all of Minnesota’s media succumb to the PGA marketing monster….

    8 of 10 attendees couldn’t name the tournament Tiger just won.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/10/2009 - 08:49 pm.

    There’s a tournament of tigers somewhere?

  11. Submitted by James Blum on 08/11/2009 - 06:52 am.

    The town hall format has the exact same problems that the Strib’s comment “feature” has — anonymity and decontextualization of the speaker/poster. At a town hall, any schmoe with a conspiracy theory can hijack the mic and spout whatever garbage they desire, without providing even their real name, background (so listeners can decide whether they are worth listening to) or any other qualifying information.

    For example, anyone can grab a mic and tell people how horrible Canadian health care is — and, inevitably, you find out that not only haven’t they experienced Canadian healthcare firsthand, they’ve never even been to Canada! And probably couldn’t find it on a map of North America …

    I second Ken Wedding’s comment — let’s evaluate the evaluators, then decide if what they say is worth listening to. (It’s the main reason I read David Brauer — I trust him!)

  12. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 08/11/2009 - 12:34 pm.

    What I find incredulous is that NONE of the news outlets – not the STRIB, not the PI Press, not MPR, and disappointingly, not MinnPost covered these town hall meetings.

    How are we to gain information from the informed and understand what the real arguments against the proposed changes are unless SOMEONE is reporting it to us.

    Apparently our traditional news sources have just decided to leave on-the-scene-reporting to Fox and guess at what acctually went on as these meetings.

    Our democracy is truly in danger.

  13. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/11/2009 - 03:02 pm.

    SPNN’s Channel 15 (in St Paul) has shown a tape of Betty McCollum’s forum. She opened with a short introduction of the topic and then sat down to listen to as many people as possible. Each speaker introduced him/herself and told from which neighborhood or suburb s/he was from. A staff member served as Timer to let each speaker know when his/her two minutes were up.

    When there was applause from single-payer advocates for speakers who shared their views AND loud, rude shouting from those who did not, Representative McCollum took the microphone and diplomatically informed us all that either audience response shortened the time for others to speak. With some exceptions, we mostly became quiet.

    Since her forum, the far-right kazillionaire-funded campaign to rouse fear and anger has induced the tearful and potentially violent scary stuff we see at such forums just a few weeks later.

  14. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/11/2009 - 04:21 pm.

    Writers/Editors/citizens lend me your ear. 2009 may be a year that goes into the history books big time like 1963, 1965, 1968, 1973. This health care bill reform is a game changer give us more please!!

  15. Submitted by Jordan Kushner on 08/11/2009 - 07:13 pm.

    i thought this was a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the press coverage of the town meetings, with one major analytical contradiction. David appears to accept at face value the claim by an Ellison staffer that he later (after the video clip ended) answered “yes” to the question about whether he would transfer his own family from the congressional health plan to the public plan ultimately passed by Congress. This is the exact same journalistic flaw that this article seeks to expose. It is even worse, because the article does not even mention if the staffer was present. Shouldn’t there be some sort of independent corroboration?

    And if Ellison really made such a commitment, I am looking for David to follow up and and find out if Ellison follows through.

    Finally, it would be interesting if someone did a substantive analysis of the claims of the Tea Party protesters, as well as what the Obama and Congressional proposals actually do. It should become pretty clear that the rightwing claims have little connection to reality, while Obama care does little to improve the status quo. If the media ever did any sort of in-depth analysis, the public could realize that the players on all sides are conning us.

  16. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/12/2009 - 03:52 pm.

    Jordan I do not think another 25 million reinsured is not a con. This will be a gamechanger as to how big a change we will have to wait and see.

  17. Submitted by Jordan Kushner on 08/12/2009 - 10:38 pm.

    Dan, you cannot take the rhetoric about the bill (on either side at face value). It is unknown how many more people the proposed bill or its variations will actually result in insuring. It is undisputed that it will take many years for the bill to reach its stated goals. who knows how much commitments will be kept or how plans will work years in the future? further, for those who do get insured, they will often need – or actually be required to pay money they cannot afford, and it is highly uncertain the coverage will even be adequate. A lot of this debate is necessarily hypothetical because Obama has made clear he is flexible and open to compromise. The base proposal is highly problematic to begin with, and who knows how bad a bill the corporate Democrats/Obamacrats will eventually pass and sign?

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