In selling his $1.9 trillion “COVID relief” package, President Biden asked a rhetorical question of Republicans in February: “What would they have me cut?” For starters, why not get taxpayer-funded “news” agencies out of the business of promoting big-government health policies?
That’s the gist of a PBS special, “Critical Care: America vs. the World,” that first aired on April 21. Compiled by the staff of “PBS NewsHour,” the special’s attempts to show balance only highlighted the bias of its underlying political premise.
Examination of Four Countries
The special, much of which was taped just prior to the COVID outbreak last winter, builds off prior “NewsHour” segments examining other countries’ health-care systems. The hour-long program attempts to demonstrate the pros and cons of four systems—those in Great Britain, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada—and see how their principles might apply in the United States.
On one level, the program does attempt to give a “warts and all” portrayal of the systems examined. The special starts with the best of the American health-care system—a child whose life was saved as an infant through groundbreaking surgery at the Texas Medical Center—before discussing the plight of uninsured individuals not far away in a nearby Houston neighborhood.
In discussing Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), the program profiles a couple with a special-needs child born with Down syndrome, epilepsy, and other complications. The parents tell correspondent William Brangham that they have never had care denied on cost grounds. Minutes later, Brangham interviews a senior citizen waiting—and waiting—for a knee replacement, and the former CEO of Britain’s infamous National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence about the implications of the way the NHS explicitly rations access to health care.
Regardless of the nuance of some of the details it examines, the special can’t get away from the premise underlying the entire program: That the federal government must focus on providing every American health insurance. The program’s page on the PBS website emphasizes “30 million Americans with no insurance,” talks about “how four other countries manage to offer health coverage to citizens more efficiently,” and emphasizes “examin[ing] how high-income nations have achieved better health care coverage for their populations at a much lower cost.”
This language demonstrates the special’s political bias, emphasizing its focus on the liberal principle of expanding coverage over the conservative principle of reducing health costs. The program references costs only in passing, as in the references above to other countries covering more people at lower cost.
It doesn’t discuss how making care more affordable by lowering underlying costs could help to solve the coverage problem, rather than focusing on coverage first and costs later. Nor does it bother to consider that government’s involvement could in many cases worsen health-care costs rather than lowering them.
For instance, the program doesn’t discuss at all how the current tax preferences for employer-provided health coverage encourage individuals to over-consume health insurance, and thus health care. Nor does it mention Amy Finkelstein’s pathbreaking research suggesting the expansion of health insurance coverage accounted for approximately half the increase in health-care spending from 1950 to 1990.
Biased Participants, Biased Outcome
Why would a PBS special—presented under the aegis of its “news” division—broadcast a program with such a political premise? Much of that answer might have to do with its participants.
For starters, the “NewsHour” segments upon which the program was based had financial support provided by the Commonwealth Fund, a lefty think-tank that focuses on expanding coverage and rationing access to care by promoting cost-effectiveness policies. The program claims “NewsHour” retained full editorial control over its content, but how likely do you think the Commonwealth Fund would be to provide financial assistance to something that clashed with its ideological goals?
To give one a sense of perspective, at the same time early last year that PBS was shooting the footage for what became its special, the Commonwealth Fund was also funding a similar series by Vox, which also looked at international health systems. This raises a simple question: Why is the taxpayer-funded, and purportedly politically neutral, PBS undertaking the same types of projects as a progressive website like Vox?
Also of note is the program’s editorial collaborator: Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Conservatives might recognize Jha from his many television appearances in the past year, in which he has frequently promoted lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID.
With the Commonwealth Fund as a sponsor, and Jha playing an editing role, it seems little wonder that the program maintains a leftist premise and does not interview anyone who disagrees with it. The other “analyst” the program uses, Princeton’s Tsung-Mei Cheng, was married to a foremost advocate of single payer, the late Uwe Reinhardt, and helped promote Taiwan’s single-payer health-care system.
To summarize the program’s editorial “balance”: It included Cheng, who while supporting a single-payer system thought it unlikely to come to fruition in the United States, and Jha, who (while purportedly agnostic on whether to enact single payer here) praised Britain’s NHS for the very explicit way it rations health care based on costs.
In other words, this program showed the left hand talking to the far-left hand—or the far-left hand talking to the far-left hand, for that matter. All this for a broadcast 1) funded in part by taxpayer dollars and 2) that billed itself as a “news” program.
Non-Answers from PBS
I asked PBS questions about the premise of the program, and why it only featured supporters of universal coverage. The spokesman responded with a general statement that didn’t answer any of my specific concerns about its content:
It’s been the intention of nearly every Administration for the last four decades—Democrat and Republican alike—to improve Americans’ access to health care and to lower the costs of health care. For us to visit four other nations that have attempted to do that in different ways is a worthy reporting effort.
The spokesman also stated that “while the Commonwealth Fund did provide support for the underlying series and PBS News Hour generally, it did not provide support for the special. The special was funded in whole by PBS.” While the spokesman claimed the additional production costs for making the special were funded by PBS, most of the underlying reporting and footage that went into the special came from the earlier series, which was funded by the Commonwealth Fund—a fact the show did not disclose during the broadcast.
Suffice it to say that the program’s content, and PBS’s (non-)response to my concerns, don’t address the political bias of “Critical Care.” The taxpayers funding PBS deserve a balanced approach to “news” content, and an operation publicly committed to the same, neither of which they received in this instance.