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The Media Bias Toward “New” News Helped the GOP Hide Its Secret Health Care Plan

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Until a modest breakthrough this week, supporters of the Affordable Care Act had spent the month of June desperately trying to make issue of the Senate Republicans’ secret plan to take health insurance away from millions of Americans.

On May 31, I described the GOP health care heist as a “scandal marked by secret meetings, violated norms, collusion, and deceit” but that, unlike the Trump investigation, “most of Washington has decided not to care.”

In a series of segments beginning June 9, MSNBC host Chris Hayes has lit his hair on fire to underscore just how aberrant the Republican approach to its health legislation has been. “It is remarkable that this process is happening,” he said. “The House process was truncated. What’s happening now is, I think, completely unprecedented.”

On June 13, as on many other days this month, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used his daily floor remarks to highlight “one of the greatest acts of legislative malpractice Washington has ever seen…. [T]hey don’t want the American people to see how poorly they would do under this bill. They don’t want people to see just how well the special interests do under this bill.”

Soon, activist groups began demanding that Senate Democrats use all the procedural levers in their reach to force the bill’s contents into the light—and then defeat it. A draft of the bill is now expected to be released on Thursday, though the public may have as little as a week to digest it before a Senate vote.

What animated all of this justified alarmism wasn’t just the secrecy of the bill-writing process—the anti-democratic method of hiding fine print from the public—but that Republicans were using that method to fade the entire purpose of Trumpcare out of public memory. And it was working.

HuffPost reporter Jeff Young wrote last week that “as important as the legislation’s details will turn out ... to be, there’s a simple, fundamental, incontrovertible fact about whatever the Senate health care reform bill winds up looking like: The purpose of this bill is to dramatically scale back the safety net so wealthy people and health care companies can get a massive tax cut.”

This is the throughline of the entire, horrifying Obamacare repeal story, and almost without exception, it was omitted from all the places most Americans get their news—television, print, and online front pages—until the past few days.

It is tempting to attribute the weeks of lost headway to a lack of liberal imagination. Many Democrats and journalists “get tangled up in policy literalism and boxed out of being able to speak clearly about the political reality that is coming,” wrote TPM’s Josh Marshall. “To be more specific, even if they don’t quite get that this is happening, many Democrats think that there’s nothing to discuss or attack since we don’t know the fine print of the legislation despite the fact that its broad scope and impact are clear.”

For the reasons spelled out above, I think this misdiagnoses the source of the challenge and the solution to it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t lock down the bill-writing process in order to block liberals from going over the bill with a fine-tooth comb. His chief insight was in recognizing a bias—not among liberals, but within the news industry—toward what you might call “new news.” Things we didn’t know before, but do know now. It is that bias, more than anything else, that has brought us to the brink of living under a law that almost nobody on the planet has seen but that will uninsure millions to pay for millionaire tax cuts.

If you consider how the secret Republican health care bill story ultimately broke through (to the extent that it has), or refer back to the much-more-thoroughly-covered health care debate in 2009, the new-news bias effect becomes fairly obvious.

What ultimately got Trumpcare a modicum of mass coverage wasn’t a critical mass of liberal outrage about secrecy, preventable deaths, or bloodless, soak-the-poor, right-wing ideology. It was that Democrats, responding to grassroots pressure, stopped cooperating with Republicans to run the Senate in an orderly fashion, and made Republicans actively reject requests to open up the process, protect children and veterans and so on. Which is to say, Democrats made a little bit of news.

The reason the Affordable Care Act debate was so thoroughly covered eight years ago wasn’t that the reporters who covered it were better, but that the debate then was like the Sutter’s Mill of news. Reporters had a surfeit of hearings, drafts, amendments, CBO reports, speeches, symposia and votes to cover, and those stories commanded prime media real estate. Because Democrats didn’t try to pass their entire reform agenda through the filibuster-proof budget process, they needed 60 votes. And because there were exactly 60 Democratic senators at the time, every single senator was a kingmaker—a newsmaker. Any Democrat who had a change of heart about anything—whether the bill should include a public option, whether the marketplaces would be organized at the state or national level, whether the government should tax expensive health plans—could reshape the bill, and could thus turn trivial changes in senatorial brain function into critical scoops.

This is what makes Republican denunciations of the debate over Obamacare so outrageously dishonest. While Republicans faked hysteria over the supposed secrecy of the process, what McConnell recognized about the 2009 debate is that nearly all of the Democrats’ struggles and setbacks stemmed from its openness. It wasn’t Democrats who set the template for Trumpcare; what Republicans are doing now is a through-the-looking-glass adoption of the lies they told about Obamacare.

As in 2009, almost every single Republican senator today has the power to change the contents or legislative course of the secret health care bill, or kill the repeal effort altogether. They are instead using their ignorance of the bill’s contents—feigned or otherwise—to shield the bill itself. The absence of new news is the bill’s greatest source of strength. The resurfacing of old Republican tweets and comments attacking the authors of Obamacare is fine by those Republicans, because it limits the newsiness of the health care story to examinations of Republican hypocrisy rather than Republican goals and values. By withholding details, they limit the range of reportorial inquiry to questions about the process itself. Have you seen the bill yet? No. Will you withhold support for the bill unless it runs through an open process? I am very dismayed about the process.

All of this underscores the importance of treating the coming bill text, and next week’s Congressional Budget Office analysis, as if they were vaguely-written letters from James Comey. There will be mere days if not hours to distill the contents and effects of the secret bill to the public before senators cast their final votes.

But it would be better in the long run for the news industry to migrate toward a more nuanced standard of newsworthiness that doesn’t cede all agenda-setting power to people who can commandeer front pages with misleading information just because it’s new, or escape scrutiny for moral crimes whenever they want to, simply by going dark.