What George Carlin Taught Us about Media Propaganda by Omission
In the old George Carlin joke, the TV sportscaster announces: “Here’s a partial score from the West Coast—Los Angeles 6.”
For a brilliant comedian like Carlin—who skewered corporate power, class structure and political/media propaganda—that’s one of his more innocuous jokes. But it’s sharply relevant today as corporate TV news outlets serve up a series of partial scores. Call it “propaganda by omission.”
Take the coverage that followed a Democratic debate. Bernie Sanders didn’t object in the debate when Joe Biden hung a price tag on Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan of $30 trillion (over 10 years). Sanders responded by offering the other score: “That’s right, Joe. Status quo over 10 years will be $50 trillion. Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman, and child in this country.”
The $50 trillion figure for continuing the status quo (actually $47 trillion) comes from the “National Health Expenditure Fact Sheet” of the federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
I checked the post-debate news coverage. As in the Carlin joke, I found many references to the partial score: the $30-32 trillion estimated cost of Sanders’ legislation. But not the other score: the more costly estimate of sticking with a system in which health insurance is provided by for-profit corporations.
I watched, for example, the next day’s in-depth report on CBS “Evening News” lasting a full two minutes. (That’s “in-depth” nowadays on nightly newscasts.) The $32 trillion estimate was prominent, but the other score was omitted—no estimate for staying with the status quo. When the report ended, anchor Nora O’Donnell accentuated the bias by saying: “That’s an expensive plan, Ed. Thank you.”
CBS opened its report speaking of “government-run healthcare plans being touted by liberal Democrats.” It’s well-known that “government-run healthcare“ is a GOP/Fox News/insurance industry talking point. As is “government takeover” of healthcare. Just ask GOP propagandist Frank Luntz.
Of course, when Medicare simply provides the coverage—whether to older people today or everyone tomorrow—that’s not “government-run healthcare.”
As I recently wrote to the L.A. Times in response to a biased poll question: “Doctors and hospitals are private today within Medicare in the U.S. (I know because I’m old enough to be on Medicare)—and they would remain so under a Medicare for All system, just as doctors and hospitals are private today under Canada’s Medicare for All system. Insurance is government-provided; not the healthcare itself.”
It’s easy to explain why Medicare for All is more cost-effective than the corporate-insurance system. Less bureaucracy and wasteful paperwork. No sales commissions. No exorbitant CEO compensation—averaging $18 million per healthcare CEO last year. No insurance company profits; the “big 8 health insurers” raked in $7 billion in one quarter last year.
But confusion, not clarity, is the job of TV news—which is so heavily sponsored by drug and healthcare companies. (Night after night, Big Pharma is the main sponsor of network newscasts.) And confusion is the job of industry ads and corporate politicians like Biden, who receives more healthcare industry donations than any other Democratic candidate.
That’s why we keep getting partial scores.
Besides the reduction in financial cost, imagine the reduction in human cost—hardship and anxiety—if our country joined every other wealthy country in achieving truly universal health coverage.
Which brings us to a partial score on another crisis causing hardship and anxiety today: climate change. The Green New Deal proposal in Congress to address the problem, while creating millions of high-paying jobs, has been savaged as “too expensive”—with Mitch McConnell and Republicans incessantly invoking a concocted and ridiculous figure of $93 trillion.
As with Medicare for All, moneyed elites want to omit the other score—the price tag of sticking with the status quo into a future that Bill McKibben describes as “a modern Dark Ages.” From science-denying Republicans to solution-denying corporate Democrats who seek a go-slow “middle-ground,” there’s an attempt to downplay the more expensive cost of deny and delay, including: rising seas and rivers, more damaging hurricanes and floods, worsening droughts and wildfires, buckling bridges and roads, increased air pollution and hospitalizations, premature deaths, crop failures, extinct species, spread of new diseases, intensified migration and more brutal civil wars.
McKibben argues that the Green New Deal “costs pennies on the dollar” compared to the bleak and costly future predicted by scientists. McKibben, of course, doesn’t sponsor TV news. The fossil fuel industry does.
In a country as wealthy as ours—when progressive proposals to address the crises of climate, healthcare and social inequality are routinely shot down by corporate politicians and media as “too expensive”—George Carlin’s quip reminds us to demand the other score: the horrific cost of our unequal and unsustainable status quo. Z
Jeff Cohen was an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College and founder of the media watch group FAIR. In 2011, he co-founded the online activism group RootsAction.org. He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.