ABC Features Own Journalist in 'Debate' With Conservative Gingrich on Health Care

ABC medical expert Dr. Tim Johnson, a fervent fan of universal health care, actually talked to the other side on Wednesday, featuring Newt Gingrich for what an onscreen graphic labeled a "debate" on the merits of a government-run program. It might seem odd for the network to tag a segment of a conservative talking to one of its journalists as a debate, but Johnson is certainly a partisan on this issue.

On June 24, he participated in ABC's White House-based, primetime town hall forum on the subject. Responding to criticism of the event from the Republican National Committee, ABC News President David Westin defended Johnson. Writing in a June 23 press release, he complained, "...I entirely reject your attack on my colleague, Dr. Timothy Johnson...His knowledge about health care reform is surpassed only by his commitment to the truth and to fairness."

However, although Johnson was civil and allowed Gingrich to make his points, a "debate" would be a good description for Wednesday's segment. Parroting White House talking points, he challenged, "Now, the President says, what he wants is a system or a field where there's level playing opportunities. The same rules and regulations would apply to the public option, as to the private insurance companies."

Making an odd comparison between health care and flying, he later argued, "I'm very reassured to know that the FAA exists, that pilots are required to be trained in a very standard way. In other words, I'm happy to have the government involved in kind of providing a certain basic standard for safety." Seemingly setting up a false choice, Johnson wondered, "Isn't there a role for government in regulation, in setting standards?"

Gingrich retorted, "I think there's a lot of role of government to set the rules, but not to run the system." He went on to talk about how the federal government could limit the threat doctors face from malpractice suits.

Johnson and ABC should be commended for featuring a conservative perspective on the health care debate. However, setting up the piece as a "debate" between an ABC journalist and a conservative is sadly accurate. For more than 15 years, Johnson has been a rabid advocate of universal health care. On October 19, 2007, he asked then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, if she believed Republicans who oppose government-run care are "immoral."

On April 26, 2007, co-host Robin Roberts told viewers that the show's medical expert believed a Ted Kennedy-sponsored plan was "bold and politically brilliant." See the October 8, 2008 NewsBusters post for a round-up of Johnson's promotion of universal health care.

A transcript of the July 1 segment, which aired at 7:43am, follows:

ROBIN ROBERTS: President Obama will hold a town hall-style meeting on health care this afternoon. It's his second in as many weeks. Our medical expert, Tim Johnson, sat down with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to get his reaction after the first meeting, which aired here on ABC. He agreed health care reform needs to happen. But, says the government has no business getting into the insurance industry.

ABC GRAPHIC: Health Care: Public or Private: A Debate With Newt Gingrich

NEWT GINGRICH: I don't want the government to be the primary operator of the health system. I don't want the government to try to run things. I don't think the government runs things very well. It rapidly becomes politicized.

TIM JOHNSON: In fact, health care is already a big political hot-button. And the most contentious issue is President Obama's so-called public option, the government insurance program to compete with private insurance. Mr. Gingrich strongly disagrees.

GINGRICH: If I have to choose between my doctor and a government bureaucrat, I have zero doubt which one I want.

JOHNSON: Most people who have private insurance feel like they are dealing with a bureaucracy right now.

GINGRICH: They are. They are.

JOHNSON: And private companies have a big overhead. If you want to look at bureaucracy in that way.

GINGRICH: I agree.

JOHNSON: So, they're not very nimble.

GINGRICH: I'm as much for reforming the large private insurance companies as I am for reforming the government. I'm not a defender of large complex insurance companies making class decisions. I think that that's actually going to turn out to be an obsolete model. And that the information age allows you to have much more personalized care and, frankly, much more personalized insurance.

JOHNSON: Now, the President says, what he wants is a system or a field where there's level playing opportunities. The same rules and regulations would apply to the public option, as to the private insurance companies.

GINGRICH: I guarantee you, the language they draft for the public plan will give it huge advantages over the private sector, or it won't work.

JOHNSON: Because?

GINGRICH: Because it won't work. And what they will do is rig the game. Anybody who's watched this Congress, who believes this Congress is going to design a fair, neutral playing field, I think would be totally out of touch with reality. I think it's disingenuous on the President's part. And it wouldn't work.

JOHNSON: I used an analogy to see if Mr. Gingrich would consider any government role. When I got on an airplane, as you do all the time, whether it's a small airport in Peoria or Logan Airport in Boston, I'm very reassured to know that the FAA exists, that pilots are required to be trained in a very standard way. In other words, I'm happy to have the government involved in kind of providing a certain basic standard for safety. Isn't there a role for government in regulation, in setting standards?

GINGRICH: Sure. Look, I'm a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. I think there's a lot of role of government to set the rules, but not to run the system. If we could pass a rule that said, if you as a doctor follow the established best practices, and you have an electronic record that proves you followed the established best practices, then you have a safe harbor from malpractice suits. Now, there would be a win-win for the country.

JOHNSON: So, is it fair for me to say you're not opposed to a strong role for government. You don't like government insurance, per se?

GINGRICH: I like the government to set standards, to set goals, to incentivize the right behavior. I'm for reform. I don't think the current system comes close to the optimum outcomes. But, I'm very cautious about a reform that locks us into really bad models.

JOHNSON: Two other points. Mr. Gingrich is very much opposed to taxing employer health benefits as income. In that sense, he differs from Senator McCain. But like President Obama, he favors a loan forgiveness program for medical students, helping them with their debts after medical school.

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org