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Obama’s Extraordinary Health Care Townhall – And ABC’s Offensive Commercial Exploitation

Update below. WH Transcript.

The President of the United States did an ABC-sponsored, nationally televised town hall to answer a broad range of questions from ordinary citizens and select health professionals.

It was an extraordinary event, both for the importance of the topic and for Obama’s competence, with the President showing an impressive grasp of the entire range of health care issues. I’ve not seen anything like this in my lifetime.

For its part, ABC insisted on having Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer, instead of informed, qualified health care experts, guide the conversation. That was a mistake, but not the worst of ABC’s offensive conduct.

Sawyer’s main contribution was to introduce her own uninformed biases/opinions in framing issues and introducing questioners. Gibson’s primary role was to reveal his own misconceptions and then literally read talking points from a Republican letter — an obvious ransom extracted after days of Republican whining about giving the President air time on a critical public issue.

Gibson’s other role was to interrupt the President every few minutes to announce a commercial break. The all too frequent commercial interruptions served as an apt metaphor for how private commercial interests demand our attention and extract their profits while limiting our ability to discuss critical public policy issues.

At one point, Gibson repeated a Republican talking point, fanned by ABC, about how an inexpensive public plan would induce employers to abandon health coverage (see my earlier post). He cited a Lewin Group study about how many millions would be affected.

By design, an author of the study was in the audience, presumably to reinforce Gibson’s point. Like any good analyst, he simply explained what the study actually showed — that if you assume a much lower cost public plan, and no other disincentives for "dumping" people, many employers would move their employees to the public option.

Obama had a ready answer, explain the disincentives, but instead of allowing him to have an intelligent exchange with a real expert to sort out the misconceptions — something Obama and the analyst could have easily done — Gibson intervened. After Obama’s response, rather than allow the analyst to follow up on this key point, Gibson interrupted to announce another commercial. Republicans hoping to preserve the misconception must have breathed a sigh of relief.

So we had this extraordinary event in which the President went before the nation and a live audience to answer critically important and sometimes difficult questions on a topic every American cares about. But instead of covering this event as the enormous public service it should have been, ABC chose to exploit the occasion to sell us Hondas and pimp for their own after-show local coverage and commercials.

In my area, the local station’s follow on health stories were superficial and silly. These local reporters simply don’t know the issues, even though New England/Boston is one of the most advanced centers of medical expertise and research in the nation. No real experts on the main topics were interviewed, but they did have several more commercials.

ABC has a story up presenting select quotes and videos and ABC’s spin. It reads like another Jake Tapper gotcha product focused on inventing meaningless concessions even though the President’s answers were, on all fundamental points, entirely consistent with everything he’s said in recent weeks and his most recent press conference. By the third paragraph Tapper tells us "Republicans do not believe the president made his case," followed by a quote from Paul Ryan whining about the lack of bipartisanship. Then we get this total fabrication from Tapper and Karen Travers:

“President Obama struggled to explain today whether his health care reform proposals would force normal Americans to make sacrifices that wealthier, more powerful people — like the president himself — wouldn’t face,”

What? There is no proposal by anyone — except those fighting reform — that "normal Americans make sacrifices" the rich don’t make; and Obama did not "struggle" to answer any of the questions. They just made it up.

So, did anyone watch it? Any reactions?

Update Thursday a.m.
: Near the end of the main session, Gibson said they were running out of time but that the President had agreed to stay on to answer questions, so they would continue the Q&A during ABC’s Nightline, following the long break for local affiliates. Of course, the reason they hadn’t gotten all the Q&A into the main part was because of all the commercials.

So I waited through the pitiful local stuff, then watched Nightline. As bmaz comments below, apparently ABC had saved any discussion of the public plan option until then. In effect, ABC chopped it up, crammed in as many commercials as they could get away with, making America wait until near the end to show issues that many American’s find most interesting.

Also, we’re not going to use ABC’s packaged videos; they chopped up the Q&A into smaller pieces and sandwiched them in between commercials — apparently that’s ABC’s idea of a "public service."

After health care reform, I’m going to recommend media reform and breakup, starting with Fox and ABC to set the model.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley