Gwen’s Take: Debating the Debate

BY Gwen Ifill  April 16, 2010 at 10:15 AM EST

I got a lot of mail this week, almost all of it online, and much of it angry. The reason? I tried to tell both sides of a story.

The occasion was our PBS NewsHour “Spotlight Series” in Tampa, Florida. Periodically, we try to break out of the Beltway to make the connection between the stories we cover here in Washington and the effect they have on peoples’ lives.

Our NewsHour team traveled across the Sunshine State to report and write stories about the economy, health care, federal dollars, and, in general, to gather whatever intelligence we could on what people are really thinking about their government.

I never fail to learn something new when I break out of the Washington bubble. One of the things I learned on this trip is why Americans are spending so much time fighting with each other.

Part of it is lack of information. But a lot of us are simply not listening to one another.

Case in point — Dee Williams, an 81-year-old retiree who lives at the Sun City Center retirement community south of Tampa. My colleagues Betty Ann Bowser and Terry Rubin interviewed her for a piece we aired about how people are still debating the new health care law. We then invited her to join us in the studio at WEDU, our public broadcaster in Tampa, to continue the conversation.

Williams was part of a panel that also included a physician and a part-time caregiver who favored the law, and a small businessman who opposed it.

But it was Williams, who is aligned with the conservative Tea Party Movement, who got the e-mailers all worked up. “What the hell kind of reporting is gathering a quartet of regular people around a table to spout their opinions about health care?” wrote one viewer (who misspelled both my first and last name).

Hmmm. Seems to me that’s exactly what reporting is – listening to what people have to say and offering a balance. Williams felt the health care bill went too far, was going to reduce her Medicare coverage and her access to care. Senior citizens, she worried, would be denied life-prolonging devices like pacemakers by a “committee” of government officials addicted to actuarial longevity tables.

Much of what Williams said was not accurate, and another guest at the table, Dr. Mona Vishin Mangat, said as much. “The Medicare benefits that are guaranteed are guaranteed,” she said. “Those are not going to change. And, so, I think it sort of evens the playing field, so that Medicare is going to last longer for all of us and be there for all of us.”

But this was not enough for the angry e-mailers, who only seemed to hear what they disagreed with. Another viewer wrote: “Giving equal weight and respect to knowledgeable and ignorant alike isn’t the kind of reporting for which I watch the NewsHour.”

This runs counter to how I see my moderator’s role. Our job as journalists is to provide the best information we can, and let you make up your own mind. We don’t take sides.

But when there is a vigorous debate going on, we can’t simply ignore it. We have a responsibility to listen.

In Florida, and throughout much of the country, the discussion about the merits of the new health care law is still underway, and the opinion split is real. Associated Press, The New York Times and CBS News published polls this week that found fully half opposed to the President’s approach to health care. That disapproval has only increased since the bill became law.

A lot of this, as our panelists also pointed out, is rooted in politics. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats in the AP poll approve of the President’s job performance; 88 percent of Republicans disapprove. You do the math.

But numbers like that make it impossible for us to look the other way. Should we be ignoring those underlying tensions or having the debates out in the open?

I vote for hearing everybody out.

This entry is cross-posted on Washington Week’s Web site.