April 03, 2014

Vermont Digger 

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

“What Went Wrong?” was how WCAX-TV (Channel 3) introduced its lead story last Friday evening, a story about the troubles of Vermont Health Connect.

A lot had gone wrong, according to a report by the BerryDunn McNeil & Parker consulting firm. To be both brief and pitiless, the report concluded that some of the folks putting together the state’s online health insurance market didn’t have the foggiest idea what they were doing.

Mostly, reporters cover government and politics. They do so, as they rarely tire of proclaiming, in an “adversarial relationship” with the people and institutions they cover. They are looking for things that “went wrong.”

Considering that the 70-page report was commissioned by none other than Gov. Peter Shumlin, the guy ultimately responsible for the workability of Vermont Health Connect, the conclusions of BerryDunn et aldeserved to be taken seriously, and reported.

As they were, on TV that evening and in the newspapers the next morning, telling Vermonters what went wrong.

Meanwhile, over at the troubled Vermont Health Connect, in addition to things going wrong, something was going on. What was going on was that people were signing up for health insurance. By the time it was all over, Monday night, 48,150 people were “fully enrolled in a plan,” according to Vermont Health Connect Public Information Officer Emily Yahr, although not all of them entered through the balky website.

That’s a lot of people. In fact, Vermont has enrolled 54 percent of its “eligible individuals” (the uninsured and those in the individual market) under the Affordable Care Act, as computed by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That’s the highest rate in the country. It’s twice as high as the next best state – Rhode Island.

Something went right.

Raising a pertinent question: How come there’s been so little attention to what went right?

Not that the growing number of enrollees didn’t get mentioned in the news now and then. But those reports have been all but drowned out by accounts of delay, confusion, computer glitches, privacy breaches and downright incompetence in the efforts by both Vermont and the whole country to transform their health care systems.

Those accounts were often accurate and newsworthy. But so was the obvious truth that people were enrolling in the new system. Success is as newsworthy as failure. Today thousands of Vermonters and millions of Americans have health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. It would be premature to call that act a success. It is past time to note that it has failed to fail, and that this “failure” is as legitimate a story as all the system’s troubles.

No, journalists inside and outside Vermont are not part of some “vast right-wing conspiracy” to discredit the Affordable Care Act. But the unbalanced coverage does illustrate some truths about journalism that its practitioners should (but often don’t) acknowledge and that the general public ought to understand.

One is that reporters tend to create a narrative about what they are covering. It is a natural impulse. But the narrative can distort if it reaches the point where reporters are receptive only to events that play into the narrative and resist acknowledging events that challenge it.

A plausible case can be made that one of these narratives helped choose a president. Part of the narrative in the 2000 campaign was that Al Gore was an habitual liar. Had he not claimed he had invented the Internet?

No, as it happens, he had not. Like most politicians (and many a doctor, lawyer, college professor, truck driver, and journalist) Gore tended to paint himself in the best possible light. He spun. He hyped. By and large, though, he was no more dishonest than most politicians, or than your next-door neighbor or your brother-in-law. But reporters leaped on anything he said that might be even a tad inaccurate, fitting it into their assumption that he was innately deceitful. It may have cost him the presidency.

At least since the truly ineffectual (and truly newsworthy) launch of the state and national health care projects last fall, the dominant narrative has been that the whole enterprise was a mess. Any development supporting that narrative was a good story. Any development to the contrary was easy to ignore.

The second truth is even more basic. It is commonly supposed that the typical news person’s political views lean to the left. Like so much that is commonly supposed, this is only sort of true. But even were it entirely true, it obscures a central fact about journalism: it is inherently conservative.

Mostly, reporters cover government and politics. They do so, as they rarely tire of proclaiming, in an “adversarial relationship” with the people and institutions they cover. They are looking for things that “went wrong.”

As, of course, many things do, and when they do, they are newsworthy. The result is a constant deprecation of government, holding it up to ridicule and contempt. Whether or not this is beneficial, its consequences are undeniably conservative. Were they subject to comparable journalistic scrutiny, it might turn out that just as much goes wrong at Harvard University, CBS, Microsoft or the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. But they are not.

Reporters also tend to favor the underdog. As the late, great columnist Murray Kempton said, “the better story is in the loser’s locker room.” Those who love the losers tend to dislike the winners, and it is the winners who govern, and whose governing then gets covered by folks whose adversarial relationship can easily become hostile.

To some reporters, the winners not only committed the sin of winning, but compounded it by governing, which often means compromising, making deals, not quite living up to the ideals expressed during the campaign. At the end of almost every legislative session in almost every state – including relatively clean and open Vermont – the governor, the House Speaker and the Senate leader meet privately to hammer out the final budget and tax bills. Some reporters regard this process as corruption, though it might just as accurately be called democracy.

Certainly the passage in 2010 of the Affordable Care Act was messy. It would not have passed without compromising, artfully altering a provision here to appeal to this senator, cajoling or pleading with that one.

Neither would the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 13th Amendment banning slavery, the Social Security Act of 1936. Perhaps some reporters should bone up on their history.

Politicians often invite journalistic hostility, as Shumlin did when he called the early troubles of Vermont Health Connect a “nothing burger.” Shumlin not only governs, he does so skillfully and sometimes imperiously. He makes himself and his administration a tempting target.

It was not a nothing burger. Neither, it turns out, was it a juicy sirloin steak with baked potato, creamed spinach, and homemade apple pie a la mode for dessert. It was a bump on the road – one of several – on a journey that may well be headed toward its destination.

The bumps deserved – and got – the attention of the news media. So does the progress.