Why do so many TV reporters think they exist in order to sell us on the virtues of government entitlements? The latest fad is the call to add a universal prescription-drug subsidy to Medicare. Suddenly, it's become The Issue We Must All Ponder.
An entitlement crusade is always best sold if the networks can make a simple-minded socialist homily out of a victim's story. Enter Winifred Skinner.
With some helpful union prompting, the 79-year-old widow stood up last week at a Gore town meeting in Iowa to explain how she walks the highway, picking up cans so she can afford to pay for food since she has to pay $250 a month for her prescriptions. Like a grand orchestra picking up their violins en masse as the Democrats conducted, the networks rushed to give Skinner her 15 minutes of fame. Al Gore kissed her five times and signed her up as a debate adviser, and the orgy was on.
ABC's Terry Moran exclaimed: "This is the way campaigns are supposed to work. A candidate, a voter and a big issue -- the high cost of prescription drugs." On CBS, Dan Rather declared, "She's no child, but she belongs on a poster about high drug costs." As he explained that the Gore campaign had been hunting for an effective victim of Big Pharmaceuticals, MSNBC's Chip Reid was positively tingling, "This one was spontaneous, and wow, is it resonating." The message was not subliminal: You should be bowled over by this charming oldster and her can-collecting plight.
The next morning, the rhapsody started all over again. NBC's Jim Avila -- last seen wondering why the mother of Elian Gonzalez would sacrifice her life to leave Castro's Cuban paradise - found the tender story of a senior citizen who lives, well, can to mouth: "A simple, sweet story, driving home what for seniors is shaping up as a cornerstone issue. A woman of dignity, walking her Midwest town to survive."
ABC's "Good Morning America" began with a lecture: "Outrage over the cost of prescription drugs in America has a new face today," and their entire segment carried the unsubtle graphic "Prescription Drug Outrage."
Yes, there should have been plenty of outrage, but for different reasons.
As the Winifred Symphony played on, those stupid things called facts started to intrude on the network propaganda line. CNSNews.com Executive Editor Scott Hogenson took the initiative to call Skinner. He found the opposite of a desperate woman itching for a new entitlement. She made it clear she's not interested in federal assistance. "No, no, I don't want the taxpayers to pay for my medicine," Skinner told Hogenson. "I'm a proud person and I want to earn it and I want to do it on my own. I don't accept charity, and I don't get food stamps. I qualify, but I don't get them because I don't want the taxpayers to support me."
Skinner's children are financially comfortable, but she won't accept any help from them. More to the (political) point, The Washington Post noticed Skinner was encouraged to attend the Gore meeting by her colleagues in the United Auto Workers union. So where's her union pension? She gets only $129 a month. Given that the unions are lavishing yet another $40 million on political activism this year, isn't there a story here?
The real tragedy of this spectacle is how emotion is all that counts. Most seniors already have prescription drug coverage. While the networks bury us in victimology, they ignore reality: Over the years, insurance coverage of prescription drug costs for Americans has improved dramatically, and out-of-pocket costs have fallen from 66 percent in 1980 to just 27 percent in 1998. And two-thirds of elderly Americans already have prescription-drug coverage.
These trends occurred without a big federal program, so they just don't register with the networks. They want a new universal Medicare benefit, one that would pay for every prescription no matter how rich the elderly people are, at the expense of younger taxpayers who are already buried in tax bills. And if they win, the media will have another program they can claim the Republicans are slashing with "huge cuts" when they try to reduce the rate of growth.
Worse yet is the yammering from network reporters that Skinner's supposed cry for government help is the ideal of democracy in action -- victims coming to town meetings clanging their cups for another helping of other people's money. That's not the ideal of democracy. That's the ideal of come-and-get-yours socialism.
Memo to the Bush campaign: This issue demands a rebuttal based on the facts and the principles of a free society. Don't cry uncle when the media twists your arms with their emotional manipulations.