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Skewing the Health Care Debate

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Message William Rivers Pitt
Reprinted from Truthout

President Obama met on Thursday with the glitterati of Capitol Hill in a much-ballyhooed confab on health care reform, and more specifically, the health of his current health care reform proposal. I was supposed to use this space to describe the details of that conference, to get into the nitty-gritty details of who said what, who made the most sense and What It All Means in the end. My intention was to do another running diary on the actual proceedings, but I couldn't do that, and for one reason: I didn't tune in to C-SPAN.

Instead, I spent my day oscillating between MSNBC, CNN and even Fox, not only to see what was happening at the conference, but to get a sense of how the three big cable news networks were covering the affair. I tired quickly of Fox, for all the oft-repeated reasons, and began flipping back and forth between the other two cans of alphabet soup. Every once in a while, CNN and MSNBC deigned to show footage of the actual event, but a majority of their air time was devoted to giving right-wing anti-reform mouth-breathing cretins free reign to spew their nonsense to all points on the compass.

Rather than go into all the gory details of the incredibly slanted display put forth by those networks, I believe a short personal story is necessary. Most intelligent people instinctively distrust what they see on television, but that often fails to disrupt the impact these networks have on our national conversation. You should know who and what you're watching, and I was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to experience the reality of the medium that so thoroughly bulldozed the health care conversation that took place behind the media blinders on Thursday.

As I was flipping around between the cable networks, trying to find one that didn't have Ben Stein and his neo-con nonsense front and center, a memory resurfaced of a personal experience I had with MSNBC. It was the winter of 2003, and the Bush administration's hard push for war in Iraq was well underway. My book, "War on Iraq," had been out since the previous fall, making the argument (correctly, as it turns out) that there were no WMD in Iraq, no connections to al-Qaeda or 9/11, and so there was no reason to invade.

I was driving home from work one day when my cell phone rang. I had only recently purchased the thing, my first, and was as ignorant at that time of the dangers of talking on the phone while driving as everyone else. Add to this the fact that my car was a stick shift, and I was smoking a cigarette, and I was entering the multi-laned quasi-intersectioned nightmare of roadwork behind Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I put the butt in the ashtray, downshifted, and answered the call while swerving into the confused welter of traffic along the Charles River.

On the line was a producer for an MSNBC news show; she told me she had read my book and really enjoyed it, and was inviting me to come on the network to talk about Iraq. Specifically, she wanted me to come on and talk about Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors, who at that point had been in Iraq for less than 100 hours. They hadn't found anything yet, but were still looking. Very specifically, she wanted me to come on MSNBC and say that Blix and his inspectors were doing a terrible job, that Iraq definitely had WMD and 9/11 connections, and that Bush should blow off Blix and do whatever the hell he wants.

I very nearly put my car into the river. You couldn't really have read my book, I said to this MSNBC producer, because if you had, you'd know that the very last thing in the world I would ever say on television or anywhere else was the inspectors were not doing their jobs and that war in Iraq was a necessity. Let's allow Blix and the inspectors to do their jobs, I said, so maybe we can avoid a costly and unnecessary war that would certainly kill thousands and thousands of people.

The MSNBC producer chortled - literally, a deep, throaty too-many-cigarettes chortle - and hung up on me.

In retrospect, there was nothing at all surprising about that incident. MSNBC is owned by General Electric, one of the largest defense contractors on the face of the Earth. They made billions off the invasion and occupation, with their pet network MSNBC cheerleading the war from the beginning. Once public opinion turned against the war, MSNBC swung away from their support and started acting like they'd been on the right side of the issue from the start. Why not? GE had already made its money off the war, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, so their flip-flop didn't really matter a damn.

What does this have to do with the cable news networks and their deliberate obfuscation of Thursday's health care debate?

Money. Again.

General Electric is deeply invested in the health care industry, specifically in the manufacture and sale of very expensive equipment to be used during very expensive medical tests. The proper, more cost-conscious application of these tests has been targeted by virtually every health care reform proposal proffered by the Democrats since this whole debate began. Try to contain your shock that MSNBC might do the bidding of its parent company by trying to crush any actual debate on the subject. The last thing General Electric wants is to see Obama's health care reform become a reality, because it would cost them money. Just as GE did when it wanted to make money off Bush's war in Iraq, it was manifestly obvious that GE used MSNBC to skew the health care debate in their favor. That's just how they roll. I've seen it with my own two eyes, and again, in retrospect, it should surprise absolutely nobody.

Think the other networks, and their parent companies, are any different? You wouldn't if you watched their despicable performances on Thursday.

This is our "news" media. Never forget.

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William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.
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