Stossel on Moore’s Sicko

[Revised, substantially, 11-18-07.]

moore-with-doctor.jpg

Stossel’s Target: What Isnt True…

I haven’t viewed John Stossel’s 20/20 response to Michael Moore’s Sicko—that is, to its “Cuban” parts—but I’ve read ABC’s report on the TV piece here. Needless to say, Stossel looks to show the downside of Cuban health care. It’s a reasonable question to ask of any report, Just what is the point?—for surely there is one. Two interpretations are possible:

(1) The article opens with the claim that Moore’s “movie says [Cuba’s] socialized medicine—government-run medicine—is great for everyone.” Later, the article quotes Miami’s Jose Carro, who knocks such “films that try to portray the health care system as superior to that of the U.S.”

So perhaps Stossel’s objective is disprove Michael Moore on these claims. But this interpretation founders on two counts: The most obvious problem is that Moore claims no such thing in Sicko. He doesn’t say that that Cuban medicine, nor “socialized medicine,” is “great for everyone.” (Nor does Moore give any view whatsoever on the overall merits of Cuban medicine relative to the American.)

A second issue with this interpretation is, in brief, that for Michael Moore to claim any such thing would be so obviously absurd as to hardly require an on-site major-network documentary to counter it. Clearly, it only takes one mediocre—much less bad—experience with Cuban health care to debunk the claim that it is “great for everyone”; all of Stossel’s “poverty footage” is just overkill. On sheer statistical probability, we can assume of (any health care system) that such a less-than-“great” experience has at some point been had by somebody.

Of course, I can’t say for sure that Stossel doesn’t interpret Moore to be saying such an absurd thing and hasn’t rushed to Cuba to debunk it in overkill. Nor can I rule out that he has some more modest claim of Moore’s (actual or alleged) in view. But consider: In Sicko Moore doesn’t claim much of anything about Cuban health care; some “health tourist” footage is presented, conclusions left largely to the viewer. We can be sure that whatever the point, Moore is saying something about Cuban health care; that is his focus. To the extent that Stossel is countering it, then—on the most charitable interpretation—his report would appear to be as much about the state of Cuban health care itself as Moore’s. (Again, to assume this is charitable; a television piece isn’t really justified if the point is to slam something one ordinary guy says—even if it isn’t absurd. A reasonable journalistic focus is not upon the fact that he said it, but upon whatever he is actually talking about; and it is interesting only to the extent that the latter is, in itself, interesting.)

…Or What Doesnt Matter?

If Stossel’s point is to offer a statement on the Cuban health care system, his statement could only be that there are some bad aspects to it. But what, in turn, could be the point of this?: Yes, Cuban health care is capable of some lapses and deficiencies. That some tiny, poor (not to say beleagured) Latin American country lends itself to these are unsurprising. Why does Cuba in particular rate such attention on this count? It occurs to nobody at ABC or anywhere else to sneak hidden cameras into Bolivian or Ecuadoran or rural Khazakh hospitals to count cockroaches on the floor or cracks in the ceiling. Would an “expose” of health care in any other “third world” nation even be interesting? (Reporter: “This just in: Yep, Bolivia is still pretty goddamned poor.”) Would it be scandalous, no less?

(And what is the lesson of the documentary, then?—for again, in investigative journalism surely there is one. Are we asking Cuba not to be poor? Or to be poor but bear no marks which could possibly identify it as poor? I don’t get this.)

So Why Cuba?

I can figure two—very poor—reasons¹ why Cuba is disproportionately targeted:

(1) As I’ve written elsewhere of Dr. Farsi Ferrer, who is interviewed in the Stossel piece, such critics seem strangely less upset that there are some problems to be found in some Cuban hospitals than that these problems coexist alongside some good features. Critics are angry about the existence of what they term “elite” or “showpiece” hospitals which, like the “best” of any other commodity in the world, represent the most value, cost the most to get, and thus necessarily exclude some with less to spend. There is certainly a qualitative range of medical “products” in Cuba and these are to some degree reflected in price. These critics speak as though it were preferable that everyone in Cuba get crappy health care—like all the other parts of the world in which everyone gets crappy health care.

(2) Second, critics of Cuban health care, or of that something called “socialised medicine,” inevitably work with a strawman in view. I can’t tell you how many times a critic has offered me some snapshot of poor Cubans or a report of medical shortages with the gloss, “See your glorious Communist paradise?” The [report on the] Stossel piece can be viewed this way, pretending that somebody has alleged Cuban health care to be “great for everyone.” If Cuba is held to a “paradisal” or “unequivocally great” standard, it will of course fail, as would any other system (of anything) in the world. But no serious defender of Cuba is saying anything like that. Not even the Cuban leadership talks that way. (Read any speech of Fidel’s—which will cover health care because all of Fidel’s speeches cover every topic: It’s pretty pragmatic and down to earth, rhetorically speaking.) So the initial target is a fiction.

Conclusion

Cuba, with its defenders, does claim exceptional performance for itself in the health care field. Where this is a general claim, it is cited relative to other Latin American neighbors; it is claimed “better than the U.S.” in terms of distribution of available resources. (Crudely put, Cuba just doesn’t have the money to give “First World” health care to everyone, all the time (and still eat, drive, educate, etc.); while the U.S. does have the money, yet doesn’t nearly do it.)

On some unexpressed personal level, Stossel could be motivated by these special claims; and indeed, these claims might justify a full-blown documentary. But the piece he actually offers (a) doesn’t much compare Cuba to its neighbors; (b) nor could a simple catalog of “bad things” about Cuban hospitals address the question of how Cuba is doing with what it has. (Much less how it is doing with what it has versus what the U.S. is doing with what it has. Much less with just what “socialized medicine” could have to do with any of it.)

I’ve written much more generally about the Cuban health care system here.

* * *

Bonus Videos

(1) Stossel has been “exposing” the obvious for awhile.

(2) Moore does a decent job of deflecting Stossel-like criticisms on CNN; catalogue here.

Notes

¹These are not quite “the reasons why” Cuban health care is targeted. The real “reasons why” are ideological, probably obvious, and beyond the scope of this post. (1) and (2) are more like rhetorical motifs used in targeting Cuba, for (as always) those ideological reasons.

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