Term Paper: Tampa Meeting Case Briefing: A Tampa "Town

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Tampa Meeting

Case Briefing: A Tampa "Town Hall" Forum Goes Awry:

Anatomy of a Public Meeting Fiasco

The case of a Tampa town hall meeting called by the area's representative to the state legislature is presented in which the meeting, which was meant to present information on a variety of healthcare topics, was disrupted by right-wing opponents to national healthcare reform. This was the beginning of a national trend in the summer of 2009, and issues of media involvement, public discourse, and public knowledge are examined in this briefing. A background of heightened rhetoric and reduced rationality in political debate leads to recommendations of calm and patient dialogue rooted in fact yet still impassioned enough to counter emotional rhetoric.

The article a Tampa "Town Hall" Forum Goes Awry: Anatomy of a Public Meeting Fiasco, by Pamela Varley (Case No. 1939.0 from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government), focuses on the disturbances and disruptions of town hall meetings by certain fringe elements of the Republican Party and/or other conservative groups during the summer of 2009. Debate regarding what would become the Affordable Healthcare Act and what is often now referred to as "Obamacare" was at a fever pitch during this time amongst both lawmakers and the public, and while some Democrat members of Congress attempted to hold informational meetings with constituents in town hall settings they often found themselves interrupted by opponents of healthcare reform (or at least opponents of healthcare reform in the incarnation they feared the current deliberations in congress would lead to). Rather than information meetings that enabled greater public knowledge and accurate scrutiny of the topic, these disruptions directly prevented information sharing by shouting down speakers. The town hall meeting disturbances also captured media attention and degraded the level of the national healthcare reform debate by focusing attention on the more sensational aspects and rhetoric of the issue rather than actual facts.

Summary

Using a town hall meeting arranged by Florida state representative Betty Reed as a backdrop, this article explores the issue of the town hall meeting disruptions caused by various conservative factions and individuals. Reed's town hall meeting had been planned primarily as an informational and question-and-answer session for her constituents regarding a variety of healthcare issues, and the inclusion of U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat, to provide an update on the status of healthcare reform, was somewhat last minute and was not meant to be the focus of the meeting at all. Certain conservative media figures -- namely Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck -- helped to stir up interest in such meetings amongst conservatives virulently opposed to any form of nationalized or federally regulated healthcare system. The meeting in Tampa was one of the first to get truly out of hand, drawing an overflow crowd that protested both inside and outside the meeting effectively denying Castor the ability to speak or answer questions and ultimately forcing Reed to close the meeting early before the diverse panel of healthcare experts she had invited to speak on a variety of topics not related to the reform efforts was able to speak or address other community concerns.

Similar disturbances occurred at other meetings held by Democrats in Congress during the summer recess, and efforts by the party to keep the debate on track and the facts behind healthcare reform efforts known pretty much failed. The media played a substantial role in this by not necessarily championing but certainly by focusing on the protests and the "debate" that emerged in public shouting matches rather than the debate about real policy, real numbers, and real healthcare and reform efforts that would come to affect the nation's citizenry. Rather than demonstrating upset at the specific and actual policies being proposed by the Obama administration and by Democrats in Congress that strongly backed a major healthcare reform effort, the right-wing protestors at these town hall meetings made logically and factually weak arguments against the reform effort regarding constitutionality and overall competence and ethics -- arguments that were emotionally and psychologically compelling for many that would come to here them despite their rational shortcomings. This season of meetings and protests significantly reduced support for healthcare reform amongst the public at large and even among centrist Democrat voters and lawmakers; despite claims by many Democrats that the majority of town hall meetings were successful events that provided opportunities for actual dialogue, these received little to no mention in national media. The story concludes with a return to Tampa, fleshing out more details of the debacle there and noting that Reed, though still in favor of the general format, will never hold an event called a "town hall meeting" again.

Background

President Obama was handed a fairly substantial victory in the elections of 2008 in the wake (or rather in the midst) of the economic turmoil precipitated by the collapse of the financial sector. Healthcare reform had been a significant part of his running platform and became the Obama administration's most pressing domestic policy issue after addressing the economy's problems, and had garnered him a great deal of support, but it also solidified a dislike for this President and his party amongst many other citizens. This began to foment quite early in Obama's presidency, and the elections of 2010 (though taking place more than a year after these town hall meetings) are clear indicators of the backlash Obama and the Democrats suffered for their 2008 victories and ongoing policy plans. The Tea Party gained credence during this period, enflamed and egged on by media entities such as Glenn Beck and others, and while the pace and extremity of the rhetoric between the right and left political elements in the country reached new heights the quality of real discussion reached new lows. It was against this background that the healthcare debate in Congress slowly began to degrade, as a result of which the early (pre-summer recess) vote that the Obama administration and others had hoped for in passing initial legislation never happened. Had this vote occurred prior to the summer recess the town hall meetings would never have been seen as necessary or desirable by Democrats and could not have been used as the propaganda pieces by Republicans/the right, yet instead the background political atmosphere being what it was allowed these meetings to become sources of vitriol and misinformation.

Analysis

There are two prominent features of this incident that are especially worthy of comment in a practical analysis of the situation. First and foremost, the ability for debate and discussion to be so easily derailed points to a significant problem in the democratic process as it operates in this country. A small faction of the voting public was, in the case of Reed's meeting specifically, able to deny other interested parties the right to discuss many important matters with their elected representatives, public officials, and figures from the medical community. Topics such as Tampa's infant mortality rate and high rate of undiagnosed diabetes -- issues that have immediate relevance to many individuals and that are at most only tangentially related to healthcare reform, yet that are important regardless -- could not be discussed because a certain faction of people were angry. Freedom of speech liberties are and should be held as sacrosanct, but when one person's speech infringes on others' there needs to be some form of effective control and mediation. In addition, the fact that this is what currently passes for public discussion and is propagated by the media points to deeper social issues that might not be easily addressed through policy measures but that will certainly require no small amount of attention and response in matters of conducting policy -- either attempts to change the status quo or an alteration of methods to accommodate it.

The second salient issue to arise from this case, and no less pressing than the first, is the role the media and the political parties -- not elected representatives with party affiliation, but the party "machines" themselves -- play in dictating the terms of public debate and knowledge in this country. Both parties appear to be at least somewhat guilty of attempting to manufacture outrage and/or support by various turns, though the Republicans are (in this case, at least) clearly far more successful at turning the tide in their favor with such tactics. There are truly no liberal counterparts to figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck -- some have tried and appeared close to achieving similar status, but none ever found a following as large or as loyal as these individuals and others (Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter are other favorites typically added to the list), and thus attempts for Democrats to enflame the same sort of passions and conscript eager citizens into joining rabble-rousing crowds tend to appear just as they did in this case: as rather weak attempts to counter successful public strategizing by Republicans and the right wing in general.

Again, issues of free speech come into play here; media entities certainly have… [END OF PREVIEW]

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