Robert Pear, a domestic correspondent for The New York Times, discussed his 40-year career with the newspaper at Yale on Monday.
In his talk, “Four Decades Reporting on Health Care for the New York Times,” Pear was joined by Ed Grossman LAW ’75, former deputy and senior legislative counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives. The event, sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, was moderated by Abbe Gluck ’96 LAW ’00, professor of law and faculty director of the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy, which also co-sponsored the event.
“Robert Pear has a bottomless amount of wisdom about health care policy, politics and law,” Gluck wrote in an email to the News. “He was a natural ask for the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School and we are grateful to the Poynter Committee for sponsoring this visit with us.”
According to Pear, media coverage of health care has become much better and more sophisticated, providing a broad range of coverage, from general interest pieces to more specialized issues. The media forces members of Congress to address questions they would not otherwise have thought about, Pear said. It was decisive in holding back the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and covering the national surge of concern about health care. When a complex bill of Supreme Court decision becomes public, Pear said, blogs can also do a good job of analyzing the news in detail and publicizing its real world implications.
Over the course of his career, Pear has covered the Department of Justice, social policy, health care, civil rights, immigration and foreign policy. But he is best known for his health policy and health care coverage.
Grossman offered a different view, saying the media has oversimplified some issues, resulting in readers who are biased on certain topics. Grossman said that Pear, in contrast, has contributed to the discourse by showing how the issues are more nuanced than the media has presented them to be. Grossman praised Pear for describing for readers a complicated, changing system — what Grossman called a “running elephant.”
A topic raised frequently by both speakers was the concept of health care as a social contract.
“The whole health insurance concept is around how you spread risks if you’re going to cover sick people,” Grossman said. “And the willingness to take on the fact that only 10 people in this room will consume 70 percent of the health care here and that you might never be part of that 10 percent, at least not for years and years and years — that’s a social contract of sorts.”
The two men also discussed working in the polarized political environment of Washington, D.C. — Grossman from the inside and Pear reporting from the outside.
According to Grossman, working in a polarized Congress is like counseling an estranged couple. One must counsel each party separately, whereas in the past, conversations with both sides in a dispute could take place in one room. Nevertheless, he said, there are still complicated pieces of legislation that yield bipartisan cooperation, citing the 21st Century Cures Act, which authorized $6.3 billion in funding to the National Institutes of Health.
“The objective in broad outlines is the same: trying to get information a lot of times from people who don’t want to share it,” Pear said about working in a partisan climate. “But I’d say there are more talking points — maybe because the issue consumes so much of the public’s attention — which we basically have to work through.”
Pear noted the importance of language and an awareness of the different reactions that different terminology can incite. For example, he said, unlike many other media sources, he generally does not use the term “Obamacare” in his coverage of the ACA, even though Obama said the policy could be labeled after him. How one describes and portrays an event can make a difference, Pear said.
Grossman said he tries to be as neutral and informative as possible when it comes to language. But he recognized that some proposals operate differently than people think they do, and the people he works for are sometimes more interested in presentation. The ACA’s full name is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for example, but it has been shortened to the ACA as a message — most Republicans agreed with the patient protection part, he said.
In an interview with the News, Pear said that a reporter’s most important job is to get the facts, which can be difficult. When it comes to complicated and nuanced issues like health care, he added, it is important for every fact to be accurate, because readers notice the smallest mistakes.
The Poynter Fellowship was established by Nelson Poynter to bring to campus distinguished reporters, editors and others who have made important contributions to the media.
Eui Young Kim | firstname.lastname@example.org