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Are health care 'town halls' really that bad? 

OK. Enough is enough. Have these town hall meetings on health care reform really run amok or have we?

I must say that I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I turn on the television and see people fussing and fighting, pushing and shoving, yelling and threatening, bullying and harassing others in a "town hall" forum, which is supposed to be just that -- a forum.

The Democrats steadily blame the Republicans for planting "hostile" people at these events, while the Republicans steadily blame the Democrats for doing the same. I don't really care whose doing it, but I do care that in these news reports, very little of what people are talking about at these forums gets any press. Instead, it is presented as one major brawl, focused on irate folks who are destroying what should be a pretty simple process. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the media is lapping up these verbal and physical altercations instead of shedding light on a complex issue.

Clearly, there must be some town hall forums on health care reform that have gone as planned, with little to no drama, other than the challenging task of discussing a sensitive issue.

Why are these forums not being talked about or reported on in the mainstream media? Why is the media focused on the extremists as opposed to the rational folk who want to hear all sides before making a decision? I hear people all of the time, in grocery store lines, on the subway, at the airport, discussing the health care reform issue, and they are not shouting at each other, even though many disagree with each other. Why can't we find these "regular" folks on the evening news?

Perhaps the insertion of a video camera inspires sheer lunacy because that is what appears to be rewarded in TV land. Are people performing for the cameras or are they truly so simple that they don't know the difference between making an important point, and making fools out of themselves?

The line between what's real and imagined has become way too blurry. Folks allow themselves to be mistreated and abused in order to be on TV. Big Brother, Hell's Kitchen, Real Housewives, Fear Factor, Hitched or Ditched and a slew of relationship programming on VH1 like Real Chance of Love fit the bill. A reality show is only "real" if there is a brawl, fistfight or someone is being embarrassed or humiliated. Now it seems as if the news is applying this perverted standard to whether or not a town hall meeting on health care should be covered.

I suppose adults actually having a mature conversation about an extremely complex issue would make for boring television. I for one would like to hear what people have to say on both sides of the issue. People who are for universal health care are not on the same page about how to get there. People who are against health care reform don't feel that way for the same reasons. That is the purpose of the "town hall" discussion, so that the information is out there, and people can make informed decisions.

When news broadcasts appear to be taking their cues from reality television, then Houston, we have a problem.

Some would suggest that the news cameras are only covering what is happening at these "town hall" meetings. It is not the media; rather, it is the people. I would argue that news producers establish the agenda and determine what is newsworthy. Constant coverage of asinine folks takes away from the real question at hand -- what is this country going to do about its health care system? What does health care reform really mean for America? In a sense, news producers determine what's real and what isn't real. What's real? Millions of people cannot afford health care in this country. What isn't real? Covering select "town hall" meetings where people are acting crazy while neglecting to cover the others.

What's more real? We better get a handle on health care before it continues to handle us.

While many of us are sidetracked into thinking that Americans cannot sit down and have real discussions about real issues like health care reform, I choose to think differently. I choose to elevate the conversations of those who are truly committed to solving our health care crisis, regardless of party affiliation.

While the news media continue to re-create the Jerry Springer brawls and reality-show catfights in their coverage of this real issue, I'll continue to seek out real solutions in other, less-mediated spaces. Where? Grocery store lines, airport terminals, subways and such. I for one prefer my news without all of the foolishness and salaciousness. I like my news like I like my discussions about health care reform -- straight, no chaser.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is managing editor of TheLoop21.com. She is an assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College and writes the blog Tune N (http://nsengaburton.wordpress.com), which examines popular culture through the lens of race, class, gender and sexuality.

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