Changing the channel and the health reform debate..

Are the tea party protest fading? Health Access staffers and allies have been to many Congressional town halls in the last few weeks. Despite the media narrative, my sense is that after the first week of August, health reform supporters have matched and often outnumbered opponents. In some areas, like the town halls of Rep. Diane Watson or of Rep. Judy Chu, they don’t show up with any visible presence at all. The “tea party”activists have called protests against Representative Henry Waxman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and others, yet the number of health reform supporters have outnumbered the opponents by 5 to 1.

Has the opposition already peaked? While focused more on environmental issues, the Sacramento “tea party” rally had a significant turnout on Friday, but fell it well short of the 10,000 people advertised, and also was significantly less than the turnout earlier at a previous protest in April. Maybe the reason was that this time, it didn’t feature a Fox News star, Neil Cavuto, as a headliner.

Fox News certainly has played a role in organizing the opposition. But even the mainstream media has promoted bad behavior, focusing on the tactics of disruption rather than the substance of the debate.

At the (newly redesigned) site of The New Republic and its health policy blog The Treatment, I have a post that explores how the media coverage has not just covered but impacted the town halls and health reform debate. (It’s entitled “What ESPN Could Teach the News Media About Covering Town Halls“)

The town halls have been more like Fox’s reality show programming than their baseball coverage, by focusing and encouraging outrageous behavior. The town hall coverage has been like if Fox focused on the fights in the stands rather than the game on the field. Fox does show most of the people in the stands, the cheers and jeers, and the signs supporting or opposing a certain team. But if someone runs onto the field, the camera turns away, not to encourage people from doing the same and ruining the event for everyone.

Beyond Joe Buck and Joe Millionaire, the Fox network provides another model for a way out of August into the fall season—American Idol. It starts with large casting calls–frankly bigger than any of the protests opposing reform. It goes on to give 15 minutes of fame to the most outrageous, most outlandish of performers. (This could include protest from the British representative–perhaps Simon Cowell could have tweeted #WeLoveTheNHS). But as we go into the fall, quality of voice matters. Popular support matters.

As health reformers, we need talk to our friends and neighbors. The novelty acts fall away as we concentrate on some key voices, even if we’ve heard the words before. And hopefully like health reform, a winner passes through the final gauntlet—maybe not everyone’s top choice, but one that is deserving.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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