Death Panels Smite Journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 2009 9:47 AM

For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists.

They tried to perform last rites on the ludicrous claim about President Obama's death panels, telling Sarah Palin, in effect, you've got to quit making things up.

But it didn't matter. The story refused to die.

The crackling, often angry debate over health-care reform has severely tested the media's ability to untangle a story of immense complexity. In many ways, news organizations have risen to the occasion; in others they have become agents of distortion. But even when they report the facts, they have had trouble influencing public opinion.

In the 10 days after Palin warned on Facebook of an America "in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel,' " The Washington Post mentioned the phrase 18 times, the New York Times 16 times, and network and cable news at least 154 times (many daytime news shows are not transcribed).

While there is legitimate debate about the legislation's funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions, the former Alaska governor's claim that government panels would make euthanasia decisions was clearly debunked. Yet an NBC poll last week found that 45 percent of those surveyed believe the measure would allow the government to make decisions about cutting off care to the elderly -- a figure that rose to 75 percent among Fox News viewers.

Less than seven hours after Palin posted her charge Aug. 7, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called it an "absurd idea." That might have been dismissed as a liberal slam, but the next day, ABC's Bill Weir said on "Good Morning America": "There is nothing like that anywhere in the pending legislation."

On Aug. 9, Post reporter Ceci Connolly said flatly in a news story: "There are no such 'death panels' mentioned in any of the House bills." That same day, on NBC's "Meet the Press," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called Palin's assertion "crazy." CNN's Jessica Yellin said on "State of the Union," "That's not an accurate assessment of what this panel is." And on ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos said: "Those phrases appear nowhere in the bill."

Still, some conservatives argued otherwise. On the Stephanopoulos roundtable, former House speaker Newt Gingrich said the legislation "has all sorts of panels. You're asking us to trust turning power over to the government when there clearly are people in America who believe in establishing euthanasia, including selective standards."

And on Fox the next night, Bill O'Reilly played a clip of former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean saying Palin "just made that up. . . . There's nothing like euthanasia in the bill." O'Reilly countered that as far as he could tell, "Sarah Palin never mentioned euthanasia. Dean made it up to demean Palin."

Ultimately, the media consensus was that Palin had attempted "to leap across a logical canyon," as the conservative bible National Review put it, adding that "we should be against hysteria." But the "death" debate was sucking up much of the political oxygen. President Obama kept denying that he was for "pulling the plug on Grandma." On Aug. 13, the Senate Finance Committee pulled the plug on the provision, with Republican Sen. Charles Grassley saying the idea could be -- yes -- "misinterpreted."

Perhaps journalists are no more trusted than politicians these days, or many folks never saw the knockdown stories. But this was a stunning illustration of the traditional media's impotence.

The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict.

Never mind if some of the fury seemed unfocused or simply anti-Obama. Katy Abram was shown hundreds of times yelling at Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter: "I don't want this country turning into Russia. . . . What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?" She later popped up on Sean Hannity's Fox show, saying: "I know that years down the road, I don't want my children coming to me and asking me, 'Mom, why didn't you do anything? Why do we have to wait in line for, I don't know, toilet paper or anything?' "

Twenty members of Congress might have held calm and collected town meetings on any given day, but only the one with raucous exchanges would make it on the air. "TV loves a ruckus," Obama complained more than once. In fact, after the president convened a low-key town hall in New Hampshire, press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the president didn't get yelled at." There was a grain of truth in that. As Fox broke away from the meeting, anchor Trace Gallagher said, "Any contentious questions, anybody yelling, we'll bring it to you."

If some Fox hosts seemed as sympathetic to the town-hall screamers as they were to last spring's tea-party protesters, MSNBC focused more on conservative efforts to organize the dissenters and whether they were half-crazed characters -- especially the few who rather chillingly stood outside Obama events with their guns.

Still, it was a stretch for White House officials, who have a huge megaphone, to blame media coverage for the sinking popularity of health reform. It was equally odd for Gibbs to tell reporters that stories about Obama backing away from a government-run health plan were "entirely contrived by you guys" -- this after Gibbs and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had said on Sunday morning shows that such a plan was not an essential part of Obama's proposal.

For all the sound and fury, news organizations have labored to explain the intricacies of the competing blueprints. "NBC Nightly News" ran a piece examining how Obama's public health-insurance option would work. ABC's "World News " did a fact check on the end-of-life provision in the bill. "CBS Evening News" highlighted problems with the current system by interviewing some of the 1,500 people waiting at a free makeshift clinic in Los Angeles. Time ran a cover story on health care, titled "Paging Dr. Obama." And major newspapers have been filled with articles examining the nitty-gritty details. Those who say the media haven't dug into the details aren't looking very hard.

But the healthy dose of coverage has largely failed to dispel many of the half-truths and exaggerations surrounding the debate. Even so, news organizations were slow to diagnose the depth of public unease about the unwieldy legislation. For the moment, the story, like the process itself, remains a muddle.

The Beck Boycott

The fallout continues over Glenn Beck assailing President Obama as a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred" of white people. About 20 companies -- including Procter & Gamble, Geico and ConAgra -- have now pulled their ads from his Fox News show.

Beck's charge was so incendiary -- and bizarre, considering that Obama's mother was white -- that even some conservatives winced. But boycotts rarely succeed in forcing anyone off the air, and indeed, Fox hasn't forfeited a dime. A Fox spokeswoman pointed to the network's statement: "The advertisers referenced have all moved their spots from Beck to other day parts on the network, so there has been no revenue lost."

Back to health-care . . .

Plenty of post-mortems out there on the president's push for reform, even though it still has a pulse. I've always felt the thing was too complicated, in a Hillarycare kind of way, and Peggy Noonan seizes on that:

"Every big idea that works is marked by simplicity, by clarity. You can understand it when you hear it, and you can explain it to people. Social Security: Retired workers receive a public pension to help them through old age. Medicare: People over 65 can receive taxpayer-funded health care. Welfare: If you have no money and cannot support yourself, we will help as you get back on your feet.

"These things are clear. I understand them. You understand them. The president's health-care plan is not clear, and I mean that not only in the sense of 'he hasn't told us his plan.' I mean it in terms of the voodoo phrases, this gobbledygook, this secret language of government that no one understands--'single payer,' 'public option,' 'insurance marketplace exchange.' No one understands what this stuff means, nobody normal.

"And when normal people don't know what the words mean, they don't say to themselves, 'I may not understand, but my trusty government surely does, and will treat me and mine with respect.' They think, 'I can't get what these people are talking about. They must be trying to get one past me. So I'll vote no.' "

Politico has a grand theory on the president overloading the system:

"The 'Big Bang' theory of governance, as some White House insiders called it, is not without risk and consequences.

"By doing so much, so fast, Obama gave Republicans the chance to define large swaths of the debate. Conservatives successfully portrayed the stimulus bill as being full of pork for Democrats. Then Obama lost control of the health care debate by letting Republicans get away with their bogus claims about 'death panels.' The GOP also has successfully raised concerns that the Obama plan is a big-government takeover of health care -- and much of Middle America bought the idea, according to polls.

"By doing so much, so fast, Obama never sufficiently educated the public on the logic behind his policies . . . By doing so much so fast, Obama jammed the circuits on Capitol Hill. Congress has a hard time doing even one big thing well at a time . . .

"Go-big-or-go-home isn't the only theory of the case that a new president can adopt. The most promising alternative is to build public support over time by showing competence and success, then using that to leverage bigger things.

"So imagine if Obama had focused on fixing the economy, and chosen presidential power over congressional accommodation and constructed his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a true, immediate stimulus without the pork and paybacks.

"He then could have pushed through tougher regulation of financial institutions, making it clear people were paying for their sins, and would have a much harder time doing it again. This would have delighted the left and perhaps bought Obama more durable support among independents. Instead, the left thinks he's beholden to investment banks, and much of the public sees no consequences for the financial mess."

All good points. But if Obama had put off health care, it never would have gotten done. By 2010 he'd be facing a skittish Congress in an election year with popularity down from his peak. And critics would have lambasted him for delaying his signature issue.

Yet another front has emerged in the health debate, and Washington Monthly's Steve Benen is happy to engage:

"Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has come to the conclusion that health care reform, in addition to being a bad idea, is literally unconstitutional. She made the case on Monday night to Fox News' Sean Hannity.

" '[I]t is not within our power as members of Congress, it's not within the enumerated powers of the Constitution for us to design and create a national takeover of health care. Nor is it within our ability to be able to delegate that responsibility to the executive.'

"It's hard to know where to start with this. My first thought was that reform doesn't represent 'a national takeover of health care.' My second was that I'll look forward to Bachmann's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Medicare. I suspect, however, that such litigation is unlikely."

On Second Thought

One of the perils of writing online every day is that occasionally you step in it. Atlantic's Marc Ambinder weighed in on the Tom Ridge admission of political pressure on terror alerts (I examine the genre of kiss-and-tell books here) and reconsiders his language:

"Both Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler have written posts eviscerating me for contending that Bush-hatred, not anything else, drove skepticism among liberals about the terrorist threat warnings. They've both written good posts, really; lawyerly, passionate and persuasive, over the top, at times, but they've given me a lot to think about . . .

"They haven't changed my mind, but they've certainly modified my conclusion. I didn't spend enough time thinking about what I wanted to say. Incidentally, if I am a symbol of everything that is wrong in journalism, then I suggest they are both giving me WAY too much credit . . .

"Ridge had the same suspicions as many liberals and libertarians. And Ridge, having access to most of the intelligence, had sound reasons to object. 'Gut hatred' is way too strong a term -- it's the wrong term -- to describe why liberals doubted the fundamental capacity of the White House to be honest about anything. It was ideological and based on their intepretation of a pattern of facts that, in retrospect, seems much more reasonable than it did. The media's skepticism was warranted; our derision wasn't and mine isn't."

Blaming Race

David Paterson has been struggling since he succeeded the scandal-tainted Eliot Spitzer, and many Dems want him to step aside for Andrew Cuomo next year. Now comes this remarkable accusation, recounted by New York's Daily News:

"Gov. Paterson blamed a racist media Friday for trying to push him out of next year's election -- launching into an angry rant that left even some black Democrats shaking their heads. 'The whole idea is to get me not to run in the primary,' Paterson complained on a morning radio show hosted by Daily News columnist Errol Louis.

"He suggested that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the country's only other African-American governor, also is under fire because of his race. 'We're not in the post-racial period,' Paterson said. 'The reality is the next victim on the list -- and you can see it coming -- is President Barack Obama, who did nothing more than trying to reform a health care system.' "

Dissenting Voice

You know you've got problems when The Washington Post reports that you were laid off -- and your wife posts a comment that you were "fired for poor performance." Should the paper have published that?

Small World

Cintra Wilson, the NYT's Critical Shopper columnist, thinks of her audience as "1,300 women in Connecticut and urban gay guys in Manhattan."

Howard Kurtz is a CNN contributor and hosts its media program "Reliable Sources" hour, which is part of "State of the Union."

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