What George Carlin Taught Us About Media Propaganda by Omission

by Jeff Cohen edited by O Society September 17, 2019

In the old George Carlin joke, the TV sportscaster announces:

“Here’s a partial score from the West Coast – Los Angeles 6.”


For a brilliant comedian like Carlin – who skewered corporate power, class structure, and political/media propaganda – one of his more innocuous jokes. It’s sharply relevant today as corporate TV news outlets serve up a series of partial scores. Call it “propaganda by omission.”

Take the coverage to follow Thursday’s Democratic debate. Bernie Sanders didn’t object in the debate when Joe Biden hung a price tag on Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan of $30 trillion (over 10 years). Sanders responded by offering the other half of the score:

“That’s right, Joe. Status quo over 10 years will be $50 trillion. Every study done shows that Medicare for All is the most cost-effective approach to providing health care to every man, woman, and child in this country.”

The $50 trillion figure for continuing the status quo (actually $47 trillion) comes from the ”National Health Expenditure Fact Sheet” of the federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

I checked the post-debate news coverage. As in the Carlin joke, I found many references to the partial score: the $30-32 trillion estimated cost of Sanders’ legislation.

I did not find many references to the other half of the scoreboard: the more costly $47-50 trillion estimate of sticking with the present system in which health insurance is provided by for-profit corporations.

I watched, for example, the next day’s in-depth report on CBS Evening News lasting a full two minutes. (BTW, this qualifies as “in-depth” nowadays on nightly newscasts.) The $32 trillion estimate was prominent, and the other half of the score omitted – no estimate for staying with the status quo. When the report ended, anchor Nora O’Donnell accentuated the bias by saying: “That’s an expensive plan, Ed. Thank you.”

CBS opened its report speaking of “government-run healthcare plans being touted by liberal Democrats.” It’s well-known “government-run healthcare“ is a GOPFox Newsinsurance industry talking point. As is “government takeover” of healthcare. Just ask GOP propagandist Frank Luntz.

Of course, when Medicare simply provides the coverage – whether to older people today or everyone tomorrow – that’s NOT “government-run healthcare.”

As I recently wrote to the L.A. Times in response to a biased poll question: “Doctors and hospitals are private today within Medicare in the U.S. (I know because I’m old enough to be on Medicare) – and they would remain so under a Medicare for All system, just as doctors and hospitals are private today under Canada’s Medicare for All system. Insurance is government-provided; not the healthcare itself.”

It’s easy to explain why Medicare for All is more cost-effective than the corporate-insurance system. Less bureaucracy and wasteful paperwork. No sales commissions. No exorbitant CEO compensation – averaging $18 million per healthcare CEO last year. No insurance company profits; the “big 8 health insurers” raked in $7 billion in one quarter last year.

But confusion, not clarity, is the job of TV news – which is so heavily sponsored by drug and healthcare companies. (Night after night, big pharma is the main sponsor of network newscasts.) And confusion is the job of industry ads and corporate politicians  named Biden, who receives more healthcare industry donations than any other Democratic candidate.

This is why we keep getting partial scores.

Besides the reduction in financial cost, imagine the reduction in human cost – hardship and anxiety – if our country joined every other wealthy country in achieving truly universal health coverage.

What is Universal Health Care?

Which bring us to a partial score on another crisis causing hardship and anxiety today: climate change. The Green New Deal proposal in Congress to address the problem, while creating millions of high-paying jobs, is savaged as “too expensive” – with Mitch McConnell and Republicans incessantly invokingconcocted and ridiculous figure of $93 trillion.


As with Medicare for All, the people with the big, big money want to omit the other half of the score – the price tag of sticking with the status quo into a future Bill McKibben describes as “a modern Dark Ages.”

What Conservatives Know About Climate Change Liberals Don’t

From science-denying Republicans to solution-denying corporate Democrats who seek a go-slow “middle-ground,” there’s an attempt to downplay the more expensive cost of deny and delay, including: rising seas and rivers, more damaging hurricanes and floods, worsening droughts and wildfires, buckling bridges and roads, increased air pollution and hospitalizations, premature deaths, crop failures, extinct species, spread of new diseases, intensified migration, and more brutal civil wars.

McKibben argues the Green New Deal “costs pennies on the dollar” compared to the bleak and costly future predicted by scientists. McKibben, of course, doesn’t sponsor TV news. The fossil fuel industry does.

In a country as wealthy as ours – when progressive proposals to address the crises of climate, healthcare, and social inequality are routinely shot down by corporate politicians and media as “too expensive” – George Carlin’s quip reminds us to demand the other half of the scoreboard: the horrific cost of our unequal and unsustainable status quo.

Cable News Confidential: FAIR Founder Jeff Cohen on his misadventures in corporate media

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