This Oct. 13, 2012 file photo shows Fox News commentator and author Bill O'Reilly at the Comedy Central
Bill O’Reilly of “The O’Reilly Factor.” (Frank Micelotta/Associated Press)

On yesterday’s edition of Fox News’s “The Five,” Jesse Watters made clear just how he felt about President Obama’s statement that 7.1 million Americans had signed up for Obamacare: “I actually think the White House is straight up lying about these numbers,” said Watters, who has made a name for himself doing ambush interviews for “The O’Reilly Factor.” “They’re saying 7 million people signed up on the Web site that was broken for the last nine months. . . . The White House has lied about so many things, why wouldn’t they lie about this? They lied about Benghazi. They lied about IRS corruption. They lied about not spying on Americans.”

On last night’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News pundit and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer tamped down the rhetoric, though just by a smidgen: “And these numbers that they are touting are phony numbers. What you’re getting is them telling you 6 or 7 million have signed up. That’s like saying, anybody who goes on Amazon, orders a nifty stereo set and puts it in the shopping cart has purchased the stereo set.”

And on “The Kelly File” last night, White House correspondent Ed Henry said, “Can we believe the 7 million number? Because you’ll remember back in October and November, they were saying, ‘Oh, look, you know, in order to get accurate numbers we have to give you monthly numbers, because they’re just trickling in.’”

That would be correct. As the Erik Wemple Blog pointed out in a previous post, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has gotten awfully selective with its release of sign-up tallies. On March 17, for instance, it posted a note about hitting the 5 million mark, and news organizations promptly spread the word. It did something similar on Feb. 25, at the 4 million mark. All this despite protestations last fall that it couldn’t give rolling indications of sign-ups.

As for Krauthammer’s critique about how many folks have paid, HHS says that such information from insurers “is neither final nor complete. When we have accurate and reliable data regarding premium payments, we will make that information available.” Another consideration: Those who signed up after March 15 don’t get their coverage until May 1, and so their premiums aren’t due until later in April.

Instead of cycling through such details, however, it’s more convenient to allege deception.

On March 11, HHS announced that 4.2 million people had signed up through March 1, a tally that reflected some sluggishness in signups. Bad news, in other words, for Obamacare. That night on Fox News, the integrity of Obamacare’s enrollment number got a gentler treatment. On the March 11 Fox News program “Special Report,” for example, White House correspondent Ed Henry stated, “President Obama’s team is making progress on sign-ups but still well short by two key measurements. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius revealing late today through the end of February, 4.2 million people have signed up in the health insurance marketplace, so they need 2.8 million more by the end of enrollment on March 31st to meet the original goal of 7 million enrollees or even the recently revised goal of 6 million.”

On that night’s “On the Record” with Greta Van Susteren, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu mis-predicted: “They have got about two weeks left, two and a half weeks. At the pace they have gotten the last two weeks, they will probably be a little under 4.5 million. So they will be short 2.5 million.” And the “Weekly Standard’s” Stephen Hayes, also on Fox News’s air, ventured this prediction: “January is slower than December, and they need to have a huge March. They’re not gonna have it. They are not going to hit their mark.”

Those folks had better hope that this 7.1 million number is “phony.” But when the enrollment numbers are low, well, they have a tendency to be more credible on a certain cable-news network.

The lesson here is that Obamacare is jumble of exposed flanks for critics. If the demographics in the sign-up figures don’t look right, you can scream about the actuarial “death spiral.” If the raw figures aren’t high enough, you can scream about the millions of Americans left out in the cold. If HHS is changing its policy on the release of numbers, you can scream about transparency. If premiums are headed in the wrong direction, you can scream about Americans struggling to make ends meet. For the state of the art on all these fronts, turn to Fox News.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.