The battle for the hearts, minds and coveted votes of America's senior citizens is now fully engaged.
On the one hand we have the Republican Congress, the Bush administration, AARP and the giants of the insurance, HMO and pharmaceutical industries. On the other, the Democrats and various senior advocacy groups.
At first glance it doesn't sound like a very even match. Then, when you throw in a thoroughly cowed and docile press corps on the side of the Goliaths, the uneven struggle becomes impossibly imbalanced.
Democratic Davids must feel like they can't catch a break, especially when dailies like the Albuquerque Journal are unleashed on the issue. It's bad enough to have to watch all those Heather Wilson and AARP television ads about how wonderful the new Medicare legislation is, but when even the Democrats' attempts at garnering a little free press to counterbalance the floodtide of paid GOP propaganda get subverted, then it must feel like they have been condemned to eternally paddling upstream with bare hands.
A few days ago our town was visited by the traveling "Medicare Road Show" organized by the advocacy group Families USA. They were joined in their presentation at the Unitarian Church by some significant local political figures, all Democrats: U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Cabinet Secretary Michelle Grisham.
More than 200 people crowded into the church auditorium to hear about the danger to the overall Medicare system that this new measure represents. Well-documented problems were presented and suggestions for how it might be changed were offered.
But in classic Albuquerque Journal fashion, its coverage of the meeting the next morning devoted more column inches to the kvetching going on outside the meeting than it did to the substantive issues being raised inside. For readers who weren't there to form their own opinion of the topic, the Journal's piece managed to convey precisely the impression that the Republicans would have wanted: The Democrats are playing politics with our seniors' health care.
Why was it judged newsworthy that U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson's staff, standing outside the Town Hall instead of participating in the discussion, would have attempted to discredit Families U.S.A by calling it "an ally of the Democratic Party?" Or that a couple of Presbyterian Health Plan officials would be carping in the courtyard about "misleading, inaccurate information" being given out inside?
I mean, get real, folks. The whole process of hammering out these new programs is supposed to be one of sharing information, providing alternatives, arguing on merits and providing full disclosure. None of that went on during the creation of the monstrosity we are now reduced to calling the Medicare Reform Act of 2004.
So when any group attempts to explain the nuances, hidden potholes and bear traps contained in the 750-plus pages of this sucker to those it will land on with crushing weight, it seems to me the role of the press ought to be to accurately convey what was said inside.
Then if private HMOs, AARP and Heather Wilson's office staff want to quibble about it, give them a platform of their own to present their information and let us decide who makes the most sense. But to simply convert the crucial issues into yet another incident in the political squabbling that will occupy the nation for the next six months is to do a major disservice to seniors, to the voting public and to the last hope for democracy to actually work.
But our pitiful morning paper assiduously removed every vestige of information from its coverage, leaving us with a picture of: Democrats derided the new Medicare prescription drug benefit while Republicans worked to discredit the advocacy group. Now there's a lead paragraph exquisitely crafted to turn off the reader's interest. Who wants to pore over 10 column inches devoted to bickering? Where'd I put the funnies, the crossword and the sports section?
Look, I think there are some shocking, very dangerous aspects to this new law. But even if there aren't, it promises to have so much of our national billfold tied-up (try $600 billion over the next 10 years ... or more!) that it damn well ought to be front page stuff, not tossed-off like nothing more than some petty disagreement between political factions.
When journalists miss the substance of an issue like this one, it leaves most voters (those who get their information from television or the local daily) with nothing more than those hideous 30-second paid political ads upon which to base their positions.
I'm sorry, the future direction of Medicare is way too important to leave up to the talents of some Madison Avenue spinmeister to communicate.
The new bill hurts more seniors than it will help. The new bill dumps hundreds of billions of dollars into the laps of pharmaceutical companies with no (not little, no) accountability. The new bill has the potential to erode the financial underpinnings of the entire Medicare program.
Those are just three of the serious concerns about this very shaky piece of legislation that have been raised. Is it too much to ask of our esteemed colleagues at the Journal that they really look into them and share their findings with the rest of us?
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.