Yelling at your Congressman is new spectator sport

11:01 PM, Aug 14, 2009   |    comments
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It's the dance sensation that's sweeping the nation! Come one, come all! Step right up and yell at your Member of Congress!

It's been fairly established that the broadcast media are drawn to covering drama, dissension, emotion and frankly, anything that moves. People shouting at their elected representatives, regardless of context, is what people in our industry call "good TV."

That explains why we've seen so much of it on cable news networks since Congress recessed and began the process of gathering input on health care reform and selling the idea to the public.  That's also explains why as of noon on Friday I'm sitting in the passenger seat of photojournalist Aethan Hart's Chevy Trailblazer rolling down Highway 12 headed for Willmar, Minnesota.

Earlier this week some producers expressed mild disappointment that our coverage of Congressman Tim Walz's health care discussion was devoid of angry detractors. As it turned out the Walz event was a "kitchen table summit" in a private home, not open to the general public.  His full fledged town hall meeting is next Thursday night in Mankato.

Rep. Collin Peterson, the 7th District Congressman and epitome of the moderate "blue dog Democrat" is doing his health care round table today (Friday the 14th of August), and it's the first such health panel event in Minnesota open to the public.

All week I've been fielding e-mails from folks on the anti-reform side of the ledger asking when they'd get their turn to talk. Our KARE 11 switchboard's also had a steady stream of callers inquiring about dates and times of public forums.

The opportunity for today's version of civil disobedience is upon us. One of my producers lamented the fact that our drive back from Willmar will get us back too late to get the screamers on the news.

"But if there is no screaming it won't be a big deal anyway."

Well, it will be a big deal for someone. Anyone who can't afford insurance  without going on welfare, or anyone tired of high premiums or red tape or dealing with benefits coordinators long distance would probably want to know how this debate will end.

The idea of people getting together from business, insurance, health care, pharmaceutics and consumers to talk about what works and what doesn't work is newsworthy. It should be newsworthy.

But I knew what she meant. Meetings aren't good TV, unless someone yells.

Some would call it democracy in its purest form -- people speaking their minds and using the power of persuasion to kill an idea they believe is too expensive, unnecessary or ineffective. Many have arrived at town halls in other parts of the nation armed with opinions but few facts.

Some have characterized this as an orchestrated effort designed to capitalize on the media's fascination with yellers, because that's a much easier story for us to explain.

The trouble, for those hoping to keep the reform momentum going, is that President Obama and Democrats in Congress haven't fully articulated how the reform package will work once enacted. We've heard a lot about what it won't do.

It won't replace private plans with a single-payer government system. It won't dismantle Medicare or the Veterans Administration health system.  It won't impose a death sentence on those deemed too ill, old or irrelevant to exist.

Proponents say it will limit an insurance company's powers to drop customers when they become ill or deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions.  It will find ways to change the rules of the game, so that medical providers are rewarded for preventing illness instead of merely treating those who have reached crisis stage.

And, we're told, the cost of reform will be offset eventually by the savings in diseases avoided and procedures eliminated. They point out the drain on the economy, the drain on businesses and their employees paying premiums, presents an array of hidden economic costs to staying with the status quo.

So, if they succeed, they'll deliver more effective health care at lower cost and it will be a win-win. It's not just about the 47 million uninsured, but the insured on the verge of losing coverage tied to jobs that are tenuous in today's economy.

This is all in that 1,000 page bill that passed a House committee. I confess I haven't read it yet.

On the other side of the ledger are other "stakeholders" who reap tremendous profits from the system we currently have.  They have every reason to believe the shortcomings of health American style can be solved by tweaking the system.

And we've seen the more cynical motives from those who have issued alerts to their followers on cable news that "killing health care reform" will deal a lethal blow to the Obama presidency and crush his chances for re-election.

If this one ends like most legislative efforts the final result will be a convergence between those pushing the gas pedal and those putting on the brakes. My driver, Aethan, has done plenty of that today on the two-laner stretching between Golden Valley and Willmar.

Update: The meeting drew an overflow crowd, but for the most part was civil. It was still going strong at 3:15 p.m. when we left the meeting so we could return KARE to put together our 6pm report.  There had been flashes of emotion, but the session was an orderly one.

(Copyright 2009 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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