ABC Isn't First: NBC Hosted Prime-Time Clinton Health-Care Special in 1994

June 17th, 2009 7:35 AM

ABC's "Prescription for America" special plugging the Obama health-nationalization plan is not the first time a network has taken on such a task. NBC did the same thing for Hillary-care in the summer of 1994, but with a twist: its two-hour special was commercial-free, paid for by the liberal Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. From the July 1994 edition of our newsletter MediaWatch:

NBC raised a lot of eyebrows by accepting $3.5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for its two-hour, commercial-free June 21 health care special, To Your Health. Five foundation fellows served on Hillary Clinton's secret task force, and when that secrecy became an issue, the foundation spent $500,000 for four town meetings featuring the First Lady.

In 1991, foundation president Dr. Steven Schroeder told The Chronicle of Philanthropy: "We are very conscious that fundamental change [in health] is not going to happen without government...Many of our recent grants have been predicated on the idea that we would get government involved."

On CNBC's Tim Russert May 9, Tom Brokaw said: "I can assure you that I wouldn't be involved with that program in any fashion if it were being directed or if it were being engineered by a special interest group."

Several conservatives (including MediaWatch publisher L. Brent Bozell) wrote to NBC President Robert Wright charging the grant "constitutes an appearance of partisanship." In a phone conversation, David Bohrman, the show's Executive Producer, gave Bozell his word the show would be balanced and pursue all aspects of the debate. But NBC earned the Janet Cooke Award.

The special, a series of pre-taped segments followed by discussions with on-stage panels and an audience at Washington's Warner Theater, tilted in favor of pro-government spokesmen and failed to explore conservative policy options. Hillary Clinton was the sole guest for the first half-hour, referring to NBC's anecdotes as proof of the need for the Clinton plan. On-stage panelists leaned two-to-one in favor of the Clinton plan or single-payer. Speakers from the audience also leaned to the liberal side by two to one.

Bohrman told MediaWatch: "We went back and timed out everything in the broadcast. No matter how you add it up or take a look at it, it was very well-balanced." But when MediaWatch suggested the ratio was more like 2 to 1, Bohrman changed his spin: "Whenever any two people try to add it up, you get a different number...What adds to the perception may have been that there was such a large dose of Tom and Mrs. Clinton at the beginning."

The program's pre-packaged news features were mostly horror stories: uninsured parents of kids with dramatic medical problems, or a woman who couldn't fund home care for her mother. Those sufferers were brought into the theater to demand more government. Reporter Maria Shriver added to one victim's demand: "And you want it now!"

This year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation can he heard in the underwriting announcements on National Public Radio -- still plugging the need for health "reform."