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 V.18 No.39 | September 24 - 30, 2009 

TV Interview

The Right-Brained Sell

Television does it better

David Brancaccio
Courtesy of
David Brancaccio

There's no chance for single-payer health care, says David Brancaccio. Actually, it was dead in the water early on, and he can pinpoint the moment of its demise. Months ago, the Obama administration said it wasn’t going to do away with insurance companies. “They were too powerful, I think, is what the issue was. At that point, there was no chance."

Brancaccio is the co-host and senior editor of the national program "NOW" on PBS, a position he inherited from Bill Moyers at the end of 2005. Brancaccio didn't bring a camera crew with him on his trip to New Mexico this time. But his program has trekked the state before, talking with Gov. Bill Richardson and looking at our surprising political scene. "I was like, Have I really been to New Mexico properly? And the answer was probably: No." But the state, with its national labs and proud residents, is fascinating to him, and he won't let co-host Maria Hinojosa snag all the stories that require travel here anymore.

Brancaccio was in Albuquerque at the beginning of this month promoting an upcoming health care special, developed in conjunction with "Nightly Business Report" and Tavis Smiley. It's rare for PBS shows to join forces, Brancaccio says. "Normally we don't play nicely together," he laughs. The special will air Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m.

PBS stared down a dilemma when compiling its report. Health care is everywhere, fevered faces engaging in a nationwide screaming match that's sucked up time and attention on every major network. "The rest of the media, by and large, has been thriving on the conflict, so people put eyeballs on their cable stations," he says. "What we're trying to do, for instance, is talk to people who have health insurance, which is most Americans." Much of the coverage has focused on the uninsured, he says. "Statistics show that people with insurance don't care that much about people without insurance. That's partly because politicians haven't made the case—if they wanted to make the case—that it's a moral issue."

The plan is to look at what he calls "the sandwich generation"—people with insurance who think they're all right but have a kid just out of college facing a serious medical problem with no insurance, or who have elderly parents for whom Medicare doesn't cover everything. These folks, he says, "are in a bind at both ends."

"Nightly Business Report" will envision what it could be like if your insurance wasn't tied to your workplace, and how that would change a workers' choices. What if you didn't have to stay married to a job because a pre-existing condition immobilized you? Tavis Smiley will look at childhood obesity in communities of color and the burden it would place on the current system in years to come.

And though those ideas may sound cerebral, good television isn't charts and graphs. "We're strong in right-brained communication about what country we want to be, why we're investing in this, whether it's an investment, not a cost," Brancaccio says. TV can impact the emotion of its audience, he says, letting viewers get to know the people in the story. For example, in a recent health care story, "NOW" followed Debby Frohberg, a woman in Las Vegas, Nev., who had health insurance. "Last July, two phone calls at about the same time: Her calling her husband to say she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer, as he was calling her the very same day to say he got laid off. Her health care was through his job," Brancaccio narrates. So she spent the couple's savings on surgery—cheap surgery, after price-hunting. But what about aftercare? Chemo? The state had just closed the outpatient chemo center. And her husband made $100 or $200 too much at his new place of employment to receive Medicaid, Brancaccio says. "So I go, ‘Debby, what are you going to do?’ And she goes, ‘Well, it's Las Vegas. I'll just gamble that my cancer doesn't come back.’ "

For more of what Brancaccio has to say about politics and media, go to

The 90-minute PBS health care special will air Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. Before the broadcast, KNME will present a localized view of the issue on “New Mexico In Focus” at 7 p.m.


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