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During the August recess, Congressmen Vic Snyder and Mike Ross held a town hall meeting at Arkansas Children's Hospital to discuss proposals for health care reform. News reports of similar meetings held across the country had begun to surface. Angry protestors, some affiliated with the Tea Party movement and other conservative organizations, shouted down some representatives. One organizer's document urged protestors to catch speakers off-guard and off-message.
Just a few minutes into the Aug. 5 meeting at Children's, it was evident that this meeting would be similar
Shouted questions interrupted the congressmen. They were challenged on their facts and sometimes accused of outright lies.
After a brief presentation, the floor was opened for questioning. The Timescaught some of these questions on video and posted a short video summary on YouTube later in the afternoon. After a day or so, the video caught fire. It has since been watched some 17,000 times and prompted more than 400 commments.
Television news shows ? including MSNBC's “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” Fox News, CNN and the Daily Show ? ran the video, in some cases in its entirety. It showed up on blogs like Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic Monthly's website and even an e-news letter from the conservative Heritage Foundation.
One reason for the video's popularity was the passion of those individuals captured on film. One woman broke down in tears as she told the congressmen, “I want my America back.” The video also captured a scene ? and sentiments ? emblematic of something going on all across the country. Our YouTube clip, shot on a tiny Flip camera, illustrated as other gatherings have that a relatively small, but very vocal group of people believe the road to improved health care leads to socialism. Their emotion ? and their volume ? has shifted the balance of power on the debate, polls show, and turned it to many more subjects than health care.
Ross and other Democrats have been criticized for losing control of the message. But what is the message? Snyder said there's been no direction from the national party or the White House on how to correct the misinformation that has clouded the debate.
Elisabeth Wright Burak, health policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said it's a constant struggle to keep the discussion focused on health care.
“There's no meaningful debate around the merits of what's on the table or what's being proposed. There are a lot of things in the current House bill that are really good for kids and families and it would be a major step forward in getting more folks insured and give them access to good health care and we're not hearing that discussion. In fact, we're hearing something very, very different and that's what's so frustrating to us is that we have a lot more to say that's very positive,” Burak said.
Olbermann said of the comments made by protestors in Little Rock, “We seem to have come full circle here. Paranoia and anger and ‘My America' ? what happened to the debate about health care? How did these people get convinced that they're going to be what, burned at the stake? Is that what they are expecting to have happen here?”
The Timesinterviewed four Arkansans who attended the event. We wanted to know more about who they were and what moved them. There were a few common threads: They distrust government, are conservative politically and each participated in the Tea Party protests held at the state Capitol on April 15. And they all think the U.S. health care system could be improved ? but not the way current legislation would do it.
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