Stuart Fischoff Ph.D.

The Media Zone

Radical Republicans, Health Care Reform and Hooliganism

Is this really what the Yahoos believe Jesus would do?

Posted Aug 29, 2009



I currently have the misfortune of both my U.S. Senator, Richard Durban, and my congressman, Representative Jerry Costello, refusing to hold town hall meetings to discuss the white hot issue of health care reform.

They're not reluctant to discuss their positions and preferences on the issue. Quite the contrary. They'll meet with you one-on-one to discuss the issue, in their district, home or D.C. office, maybe even in a group of constituents. But not in a large town hall format.

Why they are adamant about not holding such meetings is obvious: they want to avoid the disruptive shouting matches that are spreading like a cancer on our political system, throwing lies and half-truths in the way of clarifying discourse. This is often done at the hands and voices of ignorant or misinformed, perhaps sincere citizens or plants, all in the thrall of their elected and unelected leaders whom they trust to be telling the truth.

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania experienced the vituperative wrath of a hooligan plant at his town hall on Health Insurance reform. Never was the phrase "in your face," no non-metaphoric.

Then, of course, there was the irrepressible Congressman Barney Frank who showed a talking point plant why he's known as someone who does not suffer fools (or plants) lightly.

Don't get me wrong here. Ignorance of complex political issues and voicing the disagreement that often arises from such ignorance is, to borrow a blast from the Woodstock era, as American as cherry pie," But we're dealing with a different political beast of political discourse right now.

Today, now, at this time in history we're dealing with a corporate lobbyist- Republican party strategy of going from town hall meeting to town hall meeting, from one state or one district to another and starting fires.

We're dealing with protesters, presenting or not presenting themselves as sincere oppositional voters who, in reality, are only trying to intimidate and shut down the conversation and perpetuate corporate and politics-inspired myths. It's a terrorist tactic, only here deploying words, rants, and signs instead of bombs, bullets and Billy clubs.

They accomplish this town hall highjacking by monopolizing the floor, the mike and the oxygen in the venue. All done in order to protect capitalist America from that dreaded political force-socialism, or at least socialism for the poor. Socialism for the corporate leaders-that's okay.

When congressional representatives run from these thugs, as my representatives in congress are now doing, the engine driving our system of government is pushed off the track into a ditch; the voice of all the people is swallowed by the voice of the anarchic few. They are also the people who, when you listen to them and read their signs and slogans, invariably make the explicit or implied assertion that they have God and America on their side.

Don't they always.

You have to wonder, is this REALLY what the Yahoos believe Jesus would do?


Yet, outcomes of these hackneyed dramas played out across the country need not be foreordained. The theatrically riled-up mob of the disruptive few need not prevail. Good people with astute leaders can confront them and, with little struggle, tussle, or donnybrook, grandstanding, drama that is the signature of these demonstrations at town hall meetings, dispatch them to the political sewers from which they emerged, reeking of their ginned-up, talk radio-gasified, self-righteousness.

Case in point: In a school gym in Reston, VA, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Moran faced a threatening storm at a town hall meeting last Tuesday night, with thousands of interested constituents and maybe a hundred or so strategically placed, anti-health reform activists

People were allowed to carry in signs and placards and were joined by national activists, including anti-abortion campaigner Randall Terry.

DNC chairman, Howard Dean, answered questions about medical malpractice While Mr. Moran controlled the mike, controlled the floor and controlled the warp and woof of the presentation and dialogue with the audience.

Moran put up a series of slides responding to "myths" in the health-care debate, including hot button topics among opponents such as supposed "death panels" which, they argue, would restrict care for the elderly, publicly funded abortion, and the provide for free health care to illegal immigrants.

Moran spoke truth to the threat of crude power simmering in the audience. His supporters, who came to learn and perhaps to stand against the zealots, were ready to help him maintain the peace and order. Repeatedly they raised placards thanking Moran for his clarification and candor as he walked them through the myths and truths of the various versions of the proposed health reform legislation. Clearly, Moran and his people had thought this thing through.

In counterpoint, aside from angry activists pacing in the aisles and being as demonstratively shocked, awed, and outraged at the "lies" Moran was allegedly perpetrating on a naïve public, there was anti-abortion zealot, Randall Terry. He tried to hijack the event when he began loudly braying his accusations of baby killers to anyone within shouting distance. This was a mantra that pleased him and his traveling band of Harpies as he was being "escorted" from the school gym by security. He had already refused the opportunity to speak in a less histrionic fashion so Moran quite rightfully had him ejected.

From a media psychology perspective, what was most notable was this: while C-SPAN was covering the well articulated presentation of complex issues, most commercial newspersons and cameras massed outside the gym, in the hallway, and engulfed the mouthy Terry-insurgents in the manna of attention. I am on TV therefore I am.

In so doing, they turned off the lights of coherent, vitally important discourse continuing in the gym proper. This was clearly a variation on the theme "if it bleeds it leads." It still adds up to the same thing though-if there's heat and light, cover the heat.

But let's be candid here. Ever since the debacle of then-Mayor Richard Daley and the disgraceful mess called the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Republicans, own effective protester wrangling. In the Bush-Cheney era, the strategy for crowd control of protesters was simple -- don't let the bastards in!

It's a strategy that works. They do it in China, in Egypt, why not in the good old U.S. of A? If people don't see the protests covered on TV, they didn't take place. It's that simple. Of course, so is a mugging.

But here's the greater point: It's a truism that democracy is much sloppier than dictatorships or democracies teetering on the edge of dictatorship. Democrats, thankfully, are still partial to keeping the great political experiment going. That's precisely what Jim Moran did with the audience plants as well as the sincerely disagreeable audience protesters. He gave them a chance to speak.

If protesters abused the opportunity by misrepresenting themselves, their identity or they tried to launch a rant, they were and relieved of their microphone and politely dismissed. If they were sincere in their disagreement with health reform, their issues were seriously addressed.

No one was allowed to monopolize the mike, grandstand the audience or at knee-cap Rep. Moran into capitulation. Information was transmitted, myths of what's in the various drafts of the health reform legislation were exposed - at least for those who preferred to be right rather than righteous. The evening was a success. A town hall meeting worth attending and worth watching. Thanks C-SPAN

As for the news cameras in the hall recording the heat of babble, that's just what their audiences got on the 10 o'clock news. Whatever informational nourishment they thought they would learn from the news that night, what their local news delivered was only a thin gruel, another exposure to Radical Republican Political Discourse: Hooliganism 101


About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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