In Depth

Going to Town Over Health Care Reform

By Debra Kaufman

To the viewers at home, and the pundits at their PCs, the TV reports looked like a civil war brewing: At town hall meetings across the country, angry groups of citizens seemed to confront their elected officials with enraged shouting and disruptive behavior.

But was that really the true picture the TV news crews were seeing?

According to reporters and camera operators interviewed by NewsPro, the actual town hall meetings were not nearly as overwhelmingly confrontational as the videos on YouTube seemed to indicate.

 In fact, for TV news crews, the issue was how to tell the true story of the town halls without letting the loudest people take center stage.

“The biggest challenge was to try to get people who knew what they were talking about — not just the yellers,” said Travers Mackel, a reporter for Hearst-Argyle NBC affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans.

“We were trying to get people with a legitimate question; to stay away from the sensationalistic stuff and get to the root of the story.”

Mackel said that when he prepared to cover his first town hall meeting on health care reform, he was geared up for battle.

“We thought it would be World War 3,” Mackel said. “But there was no war. There was some yelling and screaming, there were some fireworks.” More or less normal contentious local politics, in other words.

Melanie Kahn , a reporter for Belo’s WHAS-TV, the Louisville, Ky., ABC affiliate, attended her first town hall meeting Sept. 2, and characterized the meeting as “tame” compared with others she’d seen broadcast. Her challenge was similar to Mackel’s.

“If they were there, they had a strong opinion and wanted to be heard,” she said. “The challenges are that you have way too much to work with. Everyone wants to talk with you and share their opinions and that slows down my ability to work while at the event.”

She also noted that the most aggressive attendees at the town hall were more likely to get attention. “When they use fighting language, they’re more likely to get on air,” she said. “Of course I interview those people, but I also try to interview those standing to the side, taking it all in. Those people want to get their questions answered but aren’t as aggressive and passionate as some other people are.”

Many gatherings were much quieter than those assigned to cover them expected.

“The town halls haven’t been raucous — they’ve been pretty sedate,” said news director Joe Hengemuehler at KNXV-TV, a Scripps-owned ABC affiliate in Phoenix. “People have brought their passions, but it hasn’t been like what we’ve seen in other parts of the country by a long stretch.”

Hengemuehler noted that when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., held a town hall in Sun City, Ariz., last month (and he’s held several recently), he sternly admonished one screaming attendee that “we don’t shout at a McCain town hall.”

“I wonder if people have seen the yelling and screaming [on TV] and thought they might want to engage in a real dialogue,” said Hengemuehler. “Having lawmakers stand in front of a large group and explain [health care reform] is a great way to hold them accountable. Maybe screaming is turning out not to yield much in the way of results and information.”

In the Quad Cities (the Iowa-Illinois metropolitan area), GM/news director Bill Carey of WQAD-TV, an ABC affiliate owned by Local TV LLC, said the station covered several town halls, including ones with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, in Bettendorf, Iowa, and another with Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., in Moline, Ill., where WQAD is headquartered.

“The town meetings that caught fire on national television had already happened when these were scheduled,” said Carey. “We were curious to see how people in Iowa would behave. And they behaved without incident. There were no outbursts, nothing raising the decibel level, and that became our story.”

“Iowa leads the way with the first caucuses and may be leading the way in a forum where people speak but don’t hyperventilate,” he said. “From a community news point of view — and without our trying to steer it this way — it became a ‘pride of Iowa’ story. Everyone conducted themselves like mature adults.”

That doesn’t mean that Iowans weren’t passionate about the topic. “Both sides called to complain about the coverage,” Carey said. “To me, that’s a healthy sign that you’re doing a good job.”

The Fox stations have taken a centralized approach to their coverage. When President Obama took office in January, Fox executives launched an initiative to cover health care reform and, in April, appointed Pam Vaught, VP of news for KTBC-TV, the Austin, Texas, station, to head up reform coverage for the group’s 17 O&Os.

“Part of that includes the town hall meetings,” said Vaught, who reports there have been four or five town halls so far in Austin. “We’ve been covering it as an individual station and then offering up clips to affiliate stations. Some stations have been streaming them as they come in.”

KTBC’s coverage also included a meeting convened by the Travis County Medical Association, one by a local ‘tea party,” objecting to the overall health care reform package and a protest at the local Whole Foods store over a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey criticizing health care reform.

One town hall, held by Rep. Lloyd Dogget, D-Texas, did become unruly. Vaught reports that 200 to 300 people squared off outside in 105-degree heat. “There weren’t any arrests,” she said. “But people were right up in each others’ faces, shouting.”

“We didn’t anticipate crazy town hall meetings [when we launched this initiative] in January,” she continues. “If they get crazy, that’s part of the story. But we’ve absolutely told the reporters that they have to get beyond the yelling, the signs and the arguing to find out what people really want done with health care.”

Calmer heads prevailed on the Fox O&O Web sites, where visitors were asked to vote on which of the top 25 issues were of greatest importance to them.

“There were no surprises, but we took these issues and began to help people in the communities solve those problems,” said Vaught, who cites lack of health care insurance, lack of affordable health care and lack of affordable prescriptions as three of the top topics.

In Grand Junction, Colo., CBS affiliate KREX-TV news director Keira Bresnahan had to prepare her station for a visit by President Obama. The city has been in the national spotlight since the June 1 issue of The New Yorker carried an article describing its unique low-cost, high-quality health care solution.

“Covering a presidential visit comes with a little bit more fanfare and a little bit more controversy,” said Bresnahan, who said she had reporters covering the arrival and departure of Air Force One, and others covering the town hall and local protests.

“More protesters come out of the woodwork, and the city is turned upside down by all the security.” The station covered several different gatherings throughout the day, including one attended by 4,000 people. “There was a street separating the two sides and everyone was very peaceful,” she said.

Since the town hall meetings that got the most attention reduced health care reform into angry slogans, some station groups and news directors are planning to dig into the issues with more nuanced programming. They’re doing so with fewer resources at their disposal; draconian budget cuts have meant fewer dedicated health care journalists who have the knowledge and experience to tease out complex issues.

Some station news directors have expressed in interest in digging into the details of the proposed bill, a 1,018-page document available on the Internet as a PDF. WQAD’s Carey said one of his station’s reporters is reading the bill and will describe its contents in a series of reports.

“Most reporters haven’t read it — most congressmen haven’t,” said Carey. “We’ll use that to our advantage.”

Fox’s Vaught agrees that the focus will change as town halls wind down. “The congressional members will go back to Washington, and the rhetoric is dying down,” she said. “Once the town halls are over, we’ll follow what’s going on in Congress, what the bill is and how it’s passed in its final form. This isn’t a story that ends with the president signing the bill.”