The Speaker's Lobby: This is SportsCenter
By: Chad Pergram, FOX News
16 August 2009
It's often said that politics is a lot like sports.
So for a moment, let's start with sports.
Imagine you work at ESPN. It's late November. And the feeds of dozens of games are funneling into the network's Bristol, CT headquarters. College football. College basketball. The NBA. NHL contests. And you're assigned to log a game between the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
You take notes during the entire game. Anything exciting happens, and you'll flag those highlights for SportsCenter.
A hockey match is 60 minutes long. And in this particular game, there's 59 minutes and 55 seconds of brilliant skating, pinpoint, tape-to-tape passing, acrobatic goaltending, lightning-fast goals and bone-rattling checks.
But none of that makes the show.
That's because Derek Boogaard of the Wild and Colton Orr of the Maple Leafs drop the gloves and just start whaling on each other at center ice.
They trade jackhammer rights. Blood flies from Boogaard's nose. Orr absorbs an uppercut. And then after a few moments, both fighters tire and switch hands. They're at it again, firing lefts. The announcer yells "Wow! Watch out, Don Cherry!" It's a reference to legendary Canadian hockey announcer Don Cherry who produces annual highlight reels of the league's best brawls.
The fight is so brutal that ESPN drops a highlight from the Florida-Florida State game on its rundown of the Top 10 plays of the night and replaces it with the hockey tussle.
The Wild win the game 3-1. But no one remembers that. No one remembers that Owen Nolan scored two goals. No one remembers Toronto missing a penalty shot. The teams played great hockey. But one of that makes SportsCenter. Instead, people fixate on the Boogaard-Orr scuffle.
There aren't a lot of people who can tell you who won last Tuesday's game between the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. But Red Sox Nation knows all about Boston's Kevin Youkilis charging the mound after the Tigers Rick Porcello plucked him with a pitch.
Which brings us to the raucous, town brawls erupting around the country this month about health care reform.
Do you recall anyone asking Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA) about Section 1758 of the health care reform bill? Did someone at one of these sessions query the senator about the requirements the Health and Human Secretary must follow under this part of the bill to report on waste fraud and abuse?
But you sure heard Katy Abram lecture Specter at a conclave in Lebanon, PA, that Congress risked "dismantling this country" if it approved President Obama's health care reform plan.
"We don't want this country to turn into Russia," Abram implored.
There was no civil discourse about Section 4377 of the legislation and its definition of an "accident" and what constituted a "health insurance policy."
But at the same meeting, Craig Anthony Miller convulsed just feet in front of Specter and was nearly removed by security personnel.
"You are trampling on our Constitution!" Miller screeched at Specter, visibly trembling. "One day, God is going to stand before you. And he's going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill! And then you will get your just desserts!"
And at a town meeting in Romulus, MI, last week, Mike Sola bellowed and jabbed his finger inches away from Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) over whether the health reform package would cover his 36-year-old son who suffers from cerebral palsy.
"You're a fraud! And you're sentencing this person to death!" Sola thundered at Dingell.
For the record, Michigan voters have voted to send that "fraud" to Washington every two years since 1954. Which makes the 83-year-old Dingell the longest-serving "fraud" in House history.
"The disrespect Dingell was shown in a state where he has made such a profound contribution was unforgivable," wrote the Detroit Free Press.
When cooler heads prevailed, Dingell inked a letter to Sola. The Congressman explained that he co-authored an amendment to the bill called the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act (CLASS). It's designed specifically for incapacitated adults just like Sola's son. The House Energy and Commerce Committee adopted Dingell's amendment when it crafted the bill. And it's endorsed by United Cerebral Palsy and the American Association of People with Disabilities.
Frankly, a letter to a constituent describing an amendment approved by voice vote in committee isn't as compelling as watching a man stand with his wheelchair-bound son deride the longest-tenured Congressman in American history. Dingell's letter to Sola didn't generate a lot of press coverage. But you can bet that millions of people sure saw Sola bleat at Dingell on YouTube.
You see, those of us in news are trained to search for conflict. Tension. The abnormal. It's what makes the story. Most town halls are humdrum discussions about "whatfors" and "whereasas" in legislation. When it spasms into an altercation, everyone pays attention.
It's natural to seek out the fight.
Which do you recall? The score of the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game on November 19, 2004? Or Ron Artest charging into the grandstands and pummeling a fan?
In George Orwell's novel "1984," the citizens of Oceania are summoned each day to watch Emmanuel Goldstein on video monitors. Goldstein is a an enemy of the state. And Goldstein's daily video appearances whip everyone into a frenzy where they spew verbal venom and hurl epithets at the screen.
Orwell calls this ritual "The Two Minutes Hate."
Many of these town hall meetings have devolved into The Two Minutes Hate. That's what the press captures. Sure, there's plenty of productive dialogue, too. But that doesn't wind up on the news.
Former Rep. Tom Coleman (R-MO) says there's a problem with distilling the meetings into caustic confrontations between lawmakers and their constituents.
"What a democracy cannot do for long is to allow the loudest to simply prevail because they are the loudest," argues Coleman. "The next step is intimidation. And after that, no person-to-person contact between elected officials and voters."
Many lawmakers are now reconsidering their town hall policies. They'll think twice about attending a pancake breakfast in their district if they fear they'll be subjected to the Two Minutes Hate and the clip will appear on TV.
But remember that not every town hall discussion is like the Two Minutes Hate. Numerous lawmakers all over the country this month have staged tame town halls that haven't featured verbal judo. They've engaged their constituents in calm, constructive dialogue about immigration, tax policy, veterans benefits, jobs and a host of other subjects. In other words, it's boring.
But boring doesn't make the news. Or SportsCenter. Skillful passing, smooth skating and solid goaltending is expected.
And rather than watching great hockey, all we've seen on our screens is a grisly melee at center ice.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He's won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.