Networks Don’t Follow the Money in Medicare Story
December 2, 2003
The nightly network newscasts devoted significant broadcast time to the
debate over the restructuring of Medicare. But while some reports
described the corporate interests that stood to gain under the plan to
offer a prescription drug benefit, few addressed the question of why
Congress would pass a law so beneficial to the pharmaceutical and health
insurance industries. In short, network news failed to heed the old
advice: follow the money.
A CBS Evening News report– aired on November 25, after the bill had
passed– mentioned that the “biggest corporate winner by far is the drug
industry itself, mostly because under the new law Medicare is barred from
negotiating drug discounts.” Such admissions were not uncommon. But left
unmentioned was the fact that pharmaceutical companies, as well as health
insurers and HMOs, are big contributors to the same politicians who cast
the votes on this legislation.
The pharmaceutical industry gave $21.7 million to Republicans and $7.6
million to Democrats in the last election cycle alone, according to the
Center for Responsive Politics. The insurance sector gave $11.7 million
to Democrats and $25.9 million to Republicans during the same time frame.
In fact, those contributions, the CRP has found, were a fairly reliable
indicator of how a given member of Congress voted on the bill: House
Republicans who supported the bill got more than three times as much
pharmaceutical money as the minority of Republican opponents; the handful
of Democratic supporters in the House received more than twice the health
insurance contributions taken in by Democrats who voted no (Capital Eye,
The simple fact that the “winners” in the Medicare debate were also big
political contributors was mentioned in only one report in the weeks
before the bill passed, according to a search of the Nexis database. This
was a November 23 segment on ABC’s World News Tonight. Correspondent Jake
Tapper noted that “buried in the energy and Medicare bills are goodies for
many corporations,” and he referred to a report by the group Common Cause
describing “Bush policies that directly benefit contributors’ companies.
The Medicare bill should boost earnings for Pfizer, the Federation of
American Hospitals and Johnson & Johnson.” Tapper also raised another
important point: “Campaign contributors not only sometimes benefit from
laws their favored politicians support, they also often help write them as
they did with these two bills.”
In another ABC World News Tonight report (10/19/03), on the health
insurance industry, ABC medical correspondent Tim Johnson noted, “With
tremendous clout in Washington– the industry spent more than $37 million
on political donations last year– reform has been slow in coming.”
Unfortunately, reporting that tied the Medicare bill’s benefits for the
healthcare industries with those industries’ generosity to politicians was
extremely rare. Back in July, CBS Evening News aired a report on the
Medicare issue by Joie Chen (7/25/03) that made the connection:
Chen: Lawmakers were blunt about the influence drug companies have on the
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D.-Ill.): There’s a pharmaceutical lobbyist and a half
for every member of Congress. They have spent over $100 million in
contributions, entertainment and lobbying expenses all focused on us.
Chen: And expect that influence to increase this fall as the House and
Senate try to work out their differences over how to fix Medicare and make
prescription drugs more affordable for seniors.
But whether that influence increased or not, CBS never again mentioned
pharmaceutical or other healthcare industry contributions in its coverage
of the Medicare debate.
NBC Nightly News, meanwhile, seems to have never mentioned the Medicare
bill and healthcare industry campaign contributions in the same story all
year. When NBC analyzed the politics of the Medicare debate (11/24/03),
reporter David Gregory claimed that “the president knew keeping a campaign
promise on prescription drugs could be a key to his re-election,”
explaining that “it’s older Americans who will make up crucial voting
block next year, an estimated one out of every four votes.” Bush,
according to Gregory, pushed the Medicare bill because he calculated that
“this campaign promise could result in political gold.” The actual
political gold that Bush and the legislators who voted for the bill will
receive– in the form of millions of dollars worth of campaign
contributions– was apparently not worth reporting.
ACTION: Encourage ABC World News Tonight and CBS Evening News to do more
reporting on the role of campaign contributions in congressional debates.
Tell NBC Nightly News that covering such debates without even mentioning
political donations is not responsible journalism.
ABC World News Tonight
CBS Evening News
NBC Nightly News
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