… 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.
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.