I'm a bit torn about attacking the protests at the health care town halls, even assuming they're organized. I mean, that's sort of what democracies are about.
These protests do worry me, but for a different reason -- they worry me because they're a test of whether our media instititions are capable of informing the public.
To back up, I completely agree with Josh Marshall that physical threats and disruptions are different from protests. Those cross the line.
But the mere fact that industry groups are organizing these protests doesn't really bother me. Progressives should be countering rather than complaining about it. My anti-insurer cred is hopefully strong by now, but even the dread insurers can send people to meetings if they want.
What does trouble me, though, is the misinformation. Many protesters (along with many Republican/talk radio critiques) are just flat-out lying about what the coverage reform bills do. There's really no way to sugarcoat it -- they're lying. And the lies are going out in a coordinated way amplified by modern communications networks (blogs, 24 hour cable, email forwards, Drudge, talk radio, etc.).
This misinformation campaign poses a deep and fundamental challenge to our country. I mean, the whole idea behind the marketplace of ideas is that it will inform and educate the public. To disseminate lies (and to do it effectively) challenges our democracy in a very fundamental way.
But that said, there's nothing you can really do about it -- that's one of the necessary costs of freedom of speech. The challenge of addressing it falls to our media institutions.
And so here's the question -- can our media inform the public? If people are lying, will the public know? Our media institutions failed us in the run-up to the Iraq War. They failed not because the war happened, but because the public wasn't properly informed.
And by "media," I don't just mean Chris Matthews and AP newspaper stories. I'm talking broadly about blogs, social networks, and other new media. Can our collective institutions inform the public this time around? That's all I want -- I want people to be informed. If the bill is so wretched, there shouldn't be any need to lie about its contents.
In sum, people can show up and yell at Representatives all they want -- that's a time-honored tradition. But if they're going to lie, the public needs to know that they're lying. Our system doesn't really work otherwise.
In this sense, the importance of the health coverage debate goes far beyond health care. It will also determine whether American institutions are capable of dealing with important problems. Can the Senate with its malapportionment and filibusters solve a real problem? We're about to find out.
In short, the health care debate will determine whether David Simon is right about America and its institutions.
[UPDATE - 1:13 PM. Chris Hayes has a somewhat different gripe with the media coverage that's also worth a read.]