Checking the Players: Newspapers Trail National Journal and Legal Times in Reports on Influence Peddling on Health Care

By Lewis, Charles | Nieman Reports, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Checking the Players: Newspapers Trail National Journal and Legal Times in Reports on Influence Peddling on Health Care


Lewis, Charles, Nieman Reports


Presidents have unsuccessfully attempted to enact national health care insurance throughout this century. For decades immensely powerful, entrenched forces have been reaping billions of dollars annually from our seriously flawed system. Given all this, you would think that Washington journalists would be swarming all over the influence-peddling power dimension of the Clinton health care reform story.

Think again.

Most of the coverage has been largely stenographic, focusing on the latest presidential pronouncements and the ping-ponging Capitol Hill reaction by Republicans and Democrats alike. And column feet have been devoted to attempts to explain the exceedingly complicated plan and its ramifications to readers -admittedly a daunting task in this instance. Nonetheless, when the long-awaited Clinton plan was finally put forward in September, there seemed to be an unabashed journalistic competition for the most adulatory article possible about Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In the hundreds of stories published by major newspapers in recent months, of course there has been some impressive although infrequent coverage of the internecine lobbying warfare which is being waged over the Clinton reform proposal. The Wall Street journal, for example, has touched on aspects of health care lobbying, but the two publications that have done the most in-depth reporting on the health care influence game are the National journal, The Times-Mirror-owned weekly on Washington politics and government, and Legal Times, another Washington weekly which most closely tracks inside lobbying issues. Unfortunately, these two publications are principally read inside the beltway, which means that most of America has no idea that yesterday's government officials are today reaping huge profits from their prior experience and connections as public servants. The revolving door assures that their special interest clients get a piece of the health care reform pie.

The news coverage of health care reform lobbying has operated on the unstated but implicit assumption that the efforts to tailor and shape the Clinton plan are just now beginning. However, from the insurance companies to the health maintenance organizations, from the doctors to the trial lawyers, from consumer groups to small business trade associations, the jockeying for influence and impact in Washington has been a mostly hidden, behind-the-scenes whirlwind at least since the weeks prior to Bill Clinton's inauguration.

Which brings us to a larger curiosity about the entire health care reform plan: the President himself. How and precisely when did Bill Clinton's thinking on the health care reform issue crystallize? No journalist has written the definitive story to date, and it is crucial to understanding the current legislation and the real underlying intentions. During the 1992 presidential campaign, the Democratic candidates with the most carefully developed health care reform positions were Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey - not Bill Clinton. Sometime from the primaries to the fall campaign, the Arkansas governor metamorphosed from a pay-or-play approach to the current concept of "managed competition. " How? Why? Who "educated" him in that direction?

We've all been taught to follow the money, and over the years, long before Bill Clinton emerged in 1992, many journalists - namely Morton Mintz of The Washington Post and Viveca Novak and Vicki Kemper of Common Cause Magazine - exposed the huge sums of money being dumped in the Congress to thwart any attempts at serious health care reform. And when, sometime after his election as President, it became clear that health care reform would be one of the four most important agenda items during the Clinton presidency, reporters began to revisit the Federal Election Commission and the National Library on Money and Politics, for the latest financial data on the health care industry. The resulting stories, most extensively by U. …

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