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Lawmakers Face Hostile Groups At Town Halls

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Lawmakers Face Hostile Groups At Town Halls

Health Care

Lawmakers Face Hostile Groups At Town Halls

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Washington.


And I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified People: Just say no. Just say no. Just say no.

BRAND: Those are protesters who recently showed up at a public appearance by congressman Lloyd Doggett in Austin, Texas. They were saying just say no to Democratic plans to overhaul health care. And they are part of a nationwide outcry, which in many cases appears to have been orchestrated by conservative groups. Small groups are taking over town hall meetings on health care and other issues. The resulting scenes are showing up on YouTube.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook has the story.

ANDREA SEABROOK: In Texas, congressman Doggett is shouted at, heckled and followed to his car.

Unidentified Woman #1: You're supposed to be representing us.

Representative LLOYD DOGGETT (Democrat, Texas): And I'm doing just that.

Unidentified Woman #2: Amen.

Unidentified Woman #1: No.

SEABROOK: In Delaware, Republican Mike Castle was confronted by people who believe President Obama wasn't born in the U.S., a rumor that's long been dispelled by fact.

(Soundbite of speech)

Unidentified Woman #3: …what I want to know is why are you people ignoring his birth certificate?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman #3: He is not an American citizen. He is a…

SEABROOK: And in downtown Philadelphia this week, Democratic Senator Arlen Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius attempt to hold a town hall meeting on health care.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Secretary KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Department of Health and Human Services): I'm pleased to have a chance to be here. I think the senator has some opening comments. We'll try to take some questions, if we can have a number of you participate. If not, you know, we can just keep shouting at one another. But I'm delighted…

Professor ALAN SCHROEDER (Journalism, Northeastern University): It gives the impression of such a firestorm of opposition…

SEABROOK: Journalism professor Alan Schroeder.

Prof. SCHROEDER: …that if you don't view that within its proper context, you get a completely misleading idea of what goes on here.

SEABROOK: Schroeder teaches at Northeastern University and has written several books on the history of televised debates. He says the town hall format — for presidents and members of Congress — has always been vulnerable to this kind of takeover. Many of the events this week appear to have been organized by conservative groups.

A new Web site is called Operation Embarrass Your Congressman. A widely circulated memo tells right-wing protesters how to treat their congressmen. Quote: Make him uneasy, stand up and shout out, and sit right back down. Rattle him. The memo concludes: Just imagine what we can achieve if we see to it that every representative in the nation who has supported the socialist agenda has a similar experience.

I reached the man who wrote this memo today, by phone. His name is Bob MacGuffie. He lives in Fairfield, Connecticut. And he belongs to the conservative group Tea Party Patriots. He told me he is sick of writing letters to Congress and getting form letters in return. And he just wants to be heard. He would not do a recorded interview for this story.

But the memo makes clear what the protesters are aiming for — press coverage of voter outrage, even as polls continue to show that a majority of Americans support overhauling the health-care system. Alan Schroeder says viewers should not take these angry scenes at face value.

Prof. SCHROEDER: The spotlight has to shift from the fact that there are these protests onto the makeup of these audiences: where they're coming from, why they're motivated, and what their game plan is.

SEABROOK: For now, several lawmakers have switched to phone conferences - or what they call tele-town halls - to try to connect with their constituents in a more controlled environment.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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