I’m shaking my head at the terrible news coverage of Republican Joe Wilson’s outburst during Barack Obama’s health care speech last night. I’m not denying that Wilson’s rude behavior is news, but look what’s missing in prominent articles covering this story: Was Obama lying?
It would seem that reporters should be asking whether Obama ever previously took a position on whether illegal aliens should be covered under what he proposes to be the new health care plan. Consider this AP article, which does what you expect. Wilson is rude; Wilson called the President a liar during a nationally broadcast session of Congress; the President looked stunned; Wilson was heavily criticized; John McCain is applauded for saying the obvious, that Wilson should apologize; Wilson does apologize; lots of head shaking; what will his behavior mean for Republicans?
If I were teaching journalism school, I would tell my cub reporters to figure out whether Obama has ever promoted national health care coverage for illegal aliens. Then I would tell them to report on this central issue.
If Obama has promoted health care coverage for illegal aliens, he was a liar. If he has never taken this position, then Joe Wilson is a liar. If Obama had previously taken the position that illegal aliens won’t be covered, then Joe Wilson is a big fat despicable liar.
If Joe Wilson turns out to be a liar, then his apology would need to go much further than it did; it would need to admit not only that he was rude but that he was the liar; he would need to admit that Obama never advocated health care coverage for illegal aliens. In any case, Wilson should be cross-examined like this by reporters: On what basis did you claim that Obama was lying? Show us your evidence.
If Wilson has no evidence, he should admit that he had no evidence, and then he should add that he makes things up and that he is exactly the sort of mindless obstructionist to health care that shouldn’t be part of the conversation because he is not an evidence-based being.
Unfortunately, the media is once again running wild with the conflict of the moment, with the apology and all the head-shaking. Instead of covering the obvious issue that would put an end to the big sideshow, most news stories have side-stepped it.
This issue of coverage for illegal immigrants is important for many people. It would be great for the illegal immigrants, of course, but it would also drive up the bill for all of those people who pay taxes (this would include many illegal immigrants). This is an important and contentious issue that needs to be addressed clearly. But when Joe Wilson shouts that Obama is a liar, the media can’t even get to the point: Was Obama a liar? It is so damned difficult to keep the media focused on the actual terms of proposed health care reform.
I do think shouting “Liar” at a President could be appropriate, even in Congress, if the President were lying about an important issue. It would be an extraordinary thing to do, but what if, for example, the President was lying to Congress that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that a war would be a cheap cake-walk when he knew these to be lies. In that case, I would think it would be appropriate for a dissenting member of Congress to stand up and call him a liar in order to spare the lives of several thousand American soldier, to prevent tens of thousands of soldiers from being maimed and to prevent the deaths, injuries and homelessness of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people. Too bad no member of Congress had the guts to stand up and break the silence in early 2003.