How the Mainstream Media Fuels Right-Wing Lies On Healthcare Reform

Art Levine

Betsy McCaughey, former Republican lieutenant governor of New York.

The fate of healthcare reform could be determined by progressive and labor groups’ ability to fight right-wing lies and health industry lobbying against meaningful reforms during the August Congressional recess.

But even as debunked smears continue, such as the claim the bill aims to kill old people through death care,” progressives are being hamstrung by mainstream media coverage.

That’s because respected news organizations, not just Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, have allowed lies, misinformation and other distortions about healthcare reform to flourish.

One little-noticed reason: the media’s never-ending emphasis on covering the political horse-race” of a story, rather than covering the policy side in a clear, emotionally compelling way. As one union lobbyist tells In These Times:

What is so frustrating is that the media is so focused on the political process, not on what reform will do for people. They [journalists] are not focused on the value of reform and what everyday people face: whether they will have in fact insurance if they lose their jobs. The reporters are more stuck in covering the political maneuverings, the tug of war.

Into that vacuum, enter the headline-grabbing GOP zealots from stage right, bearing tales of Obama’s plan to kill your grandparents.

This sort of coverage also helps spur mobs protesting healthcare reform, organized by right-ring and corporate front groups, that are now harassing members of Congress holding public forums. Here’s the result: Angry protesters shouting just say no” to healthcare change, like this group greeting Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX):

Let’s look at how the granny-killing” lie spread, and how it was pushed by influential media outlets. The myth that the legislation’s proposed voluntary advice offered about living wills was a plot to kill old people originated in mid-July with a right-wing shill-for-hire whom critics call a serial fabricator.”

That’s Betsy McCaughey, of course, the former Republican lieutenant governor of New York (now a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank) who helped kill President Bill Clinton’s health reform plans. Now she’s back, and here’s how her latest misinformation missile was first launched:

As chronicled by Media Matters for America, her claim that the bill promotes euthanasia may have started on right-wing talk radio, but then, like many useful smears, wormed its way into mainstream coverage, despite being blatantly false:

PolitiFact: McCaughey’s claim is a ridiculous falsehood”

McCaughey’s original claim gets Pants on Fire” status. On July 23, Poli​ti​Fact​.com reported: On the radio show of former Sen. Fred Thompson on July 16, 2009, McCaughey said Congress would make it mandatory — absolutely require — that every five years people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner.’ “ Poli​ti​Fact​.com stated:

For our ruling on this one, there’s really no gray area here. McCaughey incorrectly states that the bill would require Medicare patients to have these counseling sessions and she is suggesting that the government is somehow trying to interfere with a very personal decision. And her claim that the sessions would tell [seniors] how to end their life sooner” is an outright distortion. Rather, the sessions are an option for elderly patients who want to learn more about living wills, healthcare proxies and other forms of end-of-life planning. McCaughey isn’t just wrong, she’s spreading a ridiculous falsehood. That’s a Pants on Fire.

Even as Fox News and Limbaugh continued peddling the falsehood (Limbaugh talked about the government planning to get rid of your clunker grandparents“), the story continued to be pushed along by other conservative and more mainstream outlets.

One strategy to keep such stories alive is to refer to it as a controversy” or cite rumors” that won’t go away, thus keeping it in the news. The bogus claim ultimately led President Obama to deny it during a public forum.

Here’s how the media aided the spread of just this one piece of misinformation:

Debunkings, McCaughey’s backtracking doesn’t stop media echo chamber

Washington Examiner political correspondent Byron] York says according to bill, there will be consultation … to discuss … end-of-life issues,”… which he claimed raised the question of whether there’s any coercive element to this.” [Fox’s Special Report with Bret Baier, 7/28/09]

Washington Post promoted falsehood. In a July 29 Post article about President Obama’s AARP forum on health care, Ceci Connolly wrote that “[o]ne woman asked Obama about rumors’ that under the proposed legislation, every American over age 65 would be visited by a government worker and told to decide how they wish to die,’ “ but did not report that the rumors” are not true, as Cuthbert and Obama noted during that forum.

Hannity: I don’t want somebody at the end of my life from some bureaucrat counseling me about whether or not I need antibiotics.”

Buchanan: Now we’re hearing all this stuff about people at the end of their life are gonna get visited by some guy.” … After Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said, “[T]hat’s why we’ve got to straighten out some of these untruths. Some of these things are actual lies,” host Joe Scarborough replied: Are you saying you do not have the Grim Reaper clause in this health care bill? They’re all saying the Grim Reaper’s gonna come visit them.” Cummings responded, That is absolutely untrue.”

The Washington Post later deconstructed the spread of the myth on its front page, but by then the damage was already done, taking proponents of healthcare reform further off-message after the Henry Gates controversy as they were forced to rebut healthcare lies.

Indeed, in a perceptive column by the Century Foundation’s Maggie Mahar, she notes that the downbeat reporting about health reform’s prospects has seemingly become self-fulfilling. And that in part was due the media’s penchant, including by progressive publications, to focus on the political horse-race” element of healthcare reform rather than substance:

The Press Fails to Analyze the Arguments

In light of the compromises that Senate Democrats are making, one could argue that the press was correct earlier this month, when it declared that healthcare reform was headed for trouble. But I can’t help but wonder: to what degree did the headlines become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Less than two weeks ago, it seemed that Senator Baucus’ political capital was falling, and that the Senate HELP committee bill, along with the House bill, might well define the terms for reform. But the media continued to highlight setbacks far more than progress.”

Moreover, Media Matters is right in pointing out that the press failed to analyze the contradictions in the Blue Dog’s arguments as they simultaneously criticized progressive Democrats for creating reform bills that did not include enough cost savings,” and at the same time, insist that any public plan should pay doctors and hospitals more than Medicare pays. The Blue Dogs seem to be winning on that last point.

Paul Krugman has skewered the hypocrisy of the Blue Dogs, who eagerly accepted billions in lost revenue from Bush-era tax breaks and favor across-the-board increases for all rural providers, rather than paying more for effective care — or using a public health option that would lower costs through competition. But that still hasn’t prevented them from dominating the debate on health care, abetted by fawning, uncritical media coverage.

Mahar and writers for The Columbia Journalism Review, among others, point to the underlying dynamics of superficiality joined with the profit motive driving media coverage. That helps keep the issue a captive of special interests and their over-the-top rhetoric. Mahar has observed about the weakness of most coverage — and what we don’t learn:

What I find most disappointing is that when the 1,018 page House Plan was made public, even progressive newspapers failed to give readers much-needed, solid information on the strengths of the plan…

What all of this adds up to is security. No family would ever again go bankrupt because a child suffering from cancer had blown through their insurance plan’s life-time cap on reimbursements. No parent would have to worry that her twenty-something might be in a car accident — and then find himself in a situation where he received subpar care— because he didn’t have insurance. No one would have to fear watching a loved one die in screaming pain because the doctor never explained that palliative care” was available. (Palliative care specialists are trained in the fine art of controlling pain.They also counsel critically ill patients, explaining treatment options.)

Yet journalists have been so cowed by the challenge of explaining the bill clearly that corporate and right-wing interests, with simple and inflammatory messages about government control of healthcare and Obama’s plan to kill your grandparents, now dominate the debate. Journalists admit they’ve viewed healthcare reform as not being journalist-friendly” and, essentially, too boring for TV. As a result, journalists turn to covering the story they know best, political machinations, rather than policy.

That leaves the details of highlighting what’s in the bills to special interest groups, from GOP henchmen eager to destroy Obama to the insurance industry, that have their own ideological reasons for spreading falsehoods.

(Of course, Democrats have too often been stymied in making their case for change through the media. They haven’t, until very recently, been delivering a clear, consistent, emotionally powerful message that also effectively neutralizes — or, to be blunt, demonizes —their industry opponents.)

As Trudy Lieberman noted in The Columbia Journalism Review, citing a Politico story on how health reform sinks ratings”:

NPRs Julie Rovner added her two cents, saying that health care is so big and so complicated that the public is never really going to understand all the moving parts of this.” That makes them vulnerable to the fear-mongering ads bought and paid for by special interest demagogues of all stripes, she explained. [Emphasis added by In These Times.]

Jon Banner, Charlie Gibson’s executive producer over at ABC News, believes there are too many bills with too many details, which are all different…. That’s confusing to people.”

So should we stop explaining to the public how they will be affected by whatever comes forth from Congress because, as Rovner suggests, they will never understand it anyway? Should we forget about the details, as Banner implies? For months, we at [CJR’s] Campaign Desk have criticized the president and members of Congress for being too vague, and have urged them to explain — in detailed terms — how reform will affect their constituents. Failing to do so leaves the public susceptible to special interest propaganda. What exactly does a public option” or bundled payments” mean to an auto mechanic on Main Street?

She points to the work of a San Francisco public radio station, KQED, as a model for valuable reporting. For instance, she observed:

Health reporter Sarah Varney separated the facts from the fiction currently being spread by TV ads purchased by conservative interests who oppose single-payer systems.

Varney traveled to Vancouver to learn what health care is actually like in Canada. Contrary to popular belief, she found health care works pretty well. In a note to me, Varney said:

I would say as an American health reporter there is a lot of pressure inside news rooms to give the Canadian horror stories equal footing with what my reporting actually found — which was that the Canadian system is by-and-large a functioning system that covers everyone for half the cost with enviable health outcomes.”

Varney told a compelling and interesting story that directly contradicts the ads now running on U.S. television….As for the long waits Canadians supposedly endure, the number of people who do that is vanishingly small.” The illusion has been created, said [Canadian health expert Robert] Evans, that there are lines of people near death wanting services in Canada. He called that absolute nonsense.” The government has recently taken steps to alleviate whatever waits existed, by establishing national benchmarks and allocating more money for certain types of care.

But instead of such thoughtful reporting, instead we get some of the Sunday talk shows and recent articles spreading granny-killing claims or the notion that health reform is a budget-buster that will bankrupt the government; that latter claim is based largely on an early partial draft of one bill assessed by the Congressional Budget Office. That assessment was later supplanted by a more thorough CBO review, which has been rarely mentioned.

In fact, as Media Matters for America, reported yesterday on claims of $1 trillion for health reform by Fox News pundits Mara Liasson and Chris Wallace:

Suggestion the bill has a $1 trillion price tag” is false

CBO found that the House tri-committee bill would increase the federal budget deficit by $239 billion over 10 years — not $1 trillion. In its July 17 cost estimate of the bill as introduced, CBO explained that its estimate reflects a projected 10-year cost of the bill’s insurance coverage provisions of $1,042 billion, partly offset by net spending changes that CBO estimates would save $219 billion over the same period, and by revenue provisions that [the Joint Committee on Taxation] estimates would increase federal revenues by about $583 billion over those 10 years.” CBO thus concluded the legislation would result in a net increase in the federal budget deficit of $239 billion over the 2010-2019 period.”

Wallace and Liasson join New York Times, CNBCs Bartiromo, Fox News’ Rove in advancing false cost estimate…. 

Add all that misinformation to the $133 million the health industry spent on lobbying in just the second quarter of this year, it’s not surprising why progressives are seeking so much citizen support in the fight for healthcare reform. Organizations such as the AFL-CIO, SEIU and Health Care for America NOW know that grass-roots activism will be critical in the dog days of August will to overcome the fog of media-fed untruths clouding their drive for reform.

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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