How LSU’s media guru taught future journalists the wrong lesson

Yesterday the Health and Welfare Committee of the Louisiana House of Representatives considered whether Louisiana should participate in the Medicaid expansion being promoted by the federal government through President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. I testified at the hearing, explaining why I thought the expansion was problematic. The committee voted to involuntarily defer the bill, likely killing it.

In the aftermath, Robert Mann made some ugly accusations about Medicaid expansion critics, highlighting my commentary on the issue. Because Bob Mann holds the Manship Chair in Journalism and is the director of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at Louisiana State University, and his accusations center around the issue of racism, I feel compelled to respond to his claims.

First, Mann points out that I compared the federal government’s approach to enticing states into expanding their Medicaid programs to the practice among drug dealers of offering prospective customers a “taste” of the product to lure them in.

My obvious point was that legislators should think about the long-term impact of this policy, not just the short-term benefits. A free sample of cocaine can lead to a costly and destructive drug habit, just as a program initially funded by the feds can become costly and destructive down the road. Nothing about this analogy lends itself to racial stereotyping, nor does it imply anything negative about Medicaid patients. My analysis was focused on the incentives that distort policymaking decisions.

Next, he cites a portion of my recent column on Medicaid:

To make matters worse, these programs and their incentives have contributed to the demise of marriage and the traditional family unit, to the detriment of the children that are raised in unstable environments, lacking the demonstrable benefits of a two-parent family. These social costs cannot be fully captured by empirical data but they may well outweigh any of the other costs and benefits typically referenced in the debate over expanding Medicaid.

Rather than addressing the substance of my argument, Mann simply characterizes it as a tactic to get racists riled up over the possibility that black people will get free heath care from the government. He does not address the evidence that welfare has contributed to a host of severe social problems among people of all races across the nation. Of course, there are many people who would disagree with my statement. But my observations about the welfare state and its perverse incentives are not novel in any way, nor are they limited in relevance to blacks.

Readers should examine the entirety of my column and Mann’s blog post. I think they will conclude that his accusations are extremely unfair. They might also lament the fact that the most prominent professor of journalism and communications at Louisiana’s flagship public university uses his considerable skills to poison the well of public debate.

Accusations of this kind are especially pernicious because they cannot be disproved. There is no way for anyone on either side of an issue to scientifically demonstrate purity of motive when making a political argument. That is why one of the requirements of civil debate is a willingness to assume honorable motives on the part of your opponent. Mann simply assumes the worst without offering a shred of evidence. His bold attempt to categorize reasonable, mainstream arguments against Medicaid expansion as racially-based is both clever and repulsive.

This is a destructive form of advocacy. Attributing malign motives to your opponent increases the likelihood that listeners will reject an argument without giving it a fair hearing. This approach exacerbates an already polarized environment. The decline of civil discourse has been much lamented in recent years. I don’t know what Mann’s thoughts are on this issue but his actions speak volumes.

It is also worth noting that my comments were directed to state legislators. Mann gingerly avoids calling me a racist, instead claiming that I was making an argument designed to appeal to a racist audience. It appears that Bob Mann has found a roundabout way of calling the legislators who voted against expansion racists. Or maybe he just thinks their constituents are racist. Perhaps he should clarify this for us rather than beating around the bush.

If this were just another political blogger these accusations could be overlooked. But Bob Mann holds an important position at a prestigious public institution and he is understandably accorded a great deal of respect. More importantly, he is a teacher and mentor to many bright young people at LSU. His cynical deployment of racism is the wrong lesson for these future journalists and communicators.

Those of us concerned with the state of journalism will take no comfort from Bob Mann’s approach to political commentary. And those of us concerned with the state of higher education will take no comfort from the presence of another taxpayer-funded partisan. As for the students, let’s hope they remember the phrase “Do as I say, not as I do” when studying with Bob Mann.