At crucial time, cable news fails on shutdown, Obamacare

I did something foolish last week. I spent at least four hours a day with cable TV news, starting Tuesday.

I was hoping for some information and clarity on two huge stories that were starting to unfold: the partial government shutdown and the launch of the Affordable Care Act, the health insurance mandate otherwise known as Obamacare.

By Friday, I was confused, jangled and far angrier than I had been when my cable immersion started.

I am sure the red-hot and hyped-up rhetoric from politicians and spin doctors contributed to my anger and mounting confusion about the two stories. But the root cause was the inescapable conclusion that the three leading channels for cable TV news (Fox, CNN and MSNBC) were violating almost everything I thought of as journalism in covering the stories.

Watching not only muddied my understanding of two complicated stories that could affect our lives tremendously, it actually felt as if it was bad for my mental health.

MSNBC, the channel that flies under the once highly respected NBC News, was the worst offender on the rollout of the health care law.

On Wednesday, more than 24 hours after the online exchanges opened with widely reported problems, Ed Schultz was looking into the camera and telling MSNBC viewers, "There are no glitches."

He said such reports were lies manufactured by Fox News: "You can just listen to them manufacture glitches," he said.

Tell that to The New York Times, the Associated Press and virtually every other serious mainstream news operation in the country that was reporting problems with the exchanges — not just Tuesday but throughout the week.

"Glitches" was a kind term for the problems that led many states to simply shut down the exchanges rather than have visitors keep seeing error messages or getting logged out.

Schultz has always been a loud-mouthed buffoon, but his claim that there were no glitches last week put him in a league with Muhammad Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi minister of information under Saddam Hussein, who came to be known as "Baghdad Bob." (He's the guy who announced that the American military had been crushed even as cable channel cameras showed U.S. tanks whizzing past him in their capture of Baghdad.)

But Schultz is a show host, at least, operating in an opinion context. Worse were the MSNBC correspondents who stuck with an Obamacare-is-a-hit narrative whether or not they could find facts to support it.

As I reported in a blog post, MSNBC had NBC correspondent Mark Potter at a clinic in Miami on Tuesday doing an upbeat piece built around the theme that it was a new and happy day for low-income, uninsured Floridians.

But the clinic where in-person registration was being conducted was mostly empty, and the only person he talked to was its president, who also said what a new and happy day it was for low-income, uninsured Floridians.

Potter did not have any interviews with low-income, uninsured Floridians saying what a new and happy day it was for them. But he did cite unsubstantiated reports of "long lines" at clinics elsewhere in the state — lines no one else was reporting or showing pictures of Tuesday morning. The alleged lines were at clinics also operated by the man he interviewed in Miami.

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta was almost as bad in his substance-lite "CNN Express" bus tour of exchanges last week in South Carolina, Kentucky and Maryland. His "report" from Baltimore resembled a late-night, call-now-operators-are-standing-by ad more than it did serious on-the-road journalism.

The one-time candidate to be Obama's surgeon general minimized problems in registering and took the state's word that "they got a software patch to sort of fix the glitch" and registration was "now picking up." At that point, Maryland had 2,000 people enrolled, according to Gupta.

CNN's medical correspondent told viewers what they were seeing was "historic," but what I saw was Gupta talking to a telephone operator named Maria and leading her through the kind of infomercial questions that hired pitchpersons do.

Gupta: "What are some of the common calls you're getting when you field them?"

Maria: " 'I have a pre-existing condition; am I able to enroll?' And, of course, the answer is yes."

Gupta: "The answer is yes. And you don't even ask about pre-existing illness."

Maria: "No. It's much more streamlined, much more simple. So, they don't have to release private medical information that they've had to do in the past … ."

Gupta: "So, how long do you think you're going to be doing this work? How long are you going to be at this?"

Maria: "Years, years, years. We're here Saturday and Sunday. Monday through Friday, we're here until it's done."

He could have done that by phone. No need to fire up the CNN Express for that kind of "reporting."

By the end of the week, perhaps the worst sin of the cable news channels was the way they conflated the new health care law and the shutdown. Onscreen during the Gupta report was a CNN countdown clock. Ticking down by the second, it said, "Day 3 Government Shutdown." Alongside it was the headline, "Day 3 Obamacare Rollout."

By Wednesday, from where I sat, it all looked like one big, stinking, angry mess in Washington, with countdown clocks ticking, politicians running around trying to get in the right photo ops, and members of the media and elected officials spinning and spewing partisan attacks and talking points.

And no one can stir that toxic D.C. brew and roil audience emotions like the prime-time crew on Fox.

During a Wednesday news conference on the shutdown, CNN's Dana Bash asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid whether he would vote for a compromise to fund a National Institutes of Health program aimed at helping children with cancer.

"If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn't you do it?" is the way Bash phrased it.

Reid answered, "Why would I want to do that?"

It was an insensitive answer from a politician who says some incredibly stupid and cranky stuff for a guy who leads what is supposed to be the greatest deliberative body in the nation. But Reid did go on to talk about other people affected by the shutdown, so he might have been trying — however poorly — to make a larger point.

Bill O'Reilly wasn't going to let context get in the way of his rabble rousing. He used it to call Reid a "cold-hearted fanatic, a man who couldn't care less about compromise or the suffering of Americans."

O'Reilly ended his ad hominem with, "For Harry, it's all about power. We got your number, man."

And then came Sean Hannity.

"Why would you want to a help a kid with cancer?" Hannity asked rhetorically. "Why? I mean, do I even have to answer that? If you want to talk about cold, callous, heartless, mean-spirited, hateful — all the rhetoric Harry Reid recklessly throws around against Republicans, it fits him!"

But Hannity was only warming up after a little prompting from his guest, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

"All this casual cruelty of Harry Reid," the Fox host began. "He's going to subordinate literally compassion and decency for partisanship? He won't keep the parks open. He won't allow the vets to go to World War II [the memorial]? He's not going to fund the NIH even if it's going to help one kid with cancer? I mean, that's pretty sick. What a twisted old … "

Hannity paused there with the skill of a trained propagandist and then ended his tirade with, "I'm sorry."

As if he really was.

Me, I really am sorry for the week I spent with cable TV news. But I am even sorrier for the way cable TV news fails us as citizens at crucial times in our nation's history like this.