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Media Notes: Journalism's slide into health-debate weariness

All this was like nailing Jell-O to the wall. As soon as a media consensus would form, it seemed, the legislation would change. And CJR's Lieberman has a point: Too many stories quoted dueling experts without making a concerted, serious effort to sort out the facts. Even the much-awaited "scores" from the Congressional Budget Office were treated gingerly, since the agency had to hedge its bets in projecting what might happen a decade from now.

It was sooo much easier to write another story about the latest Tiger mistress to go public.

The press did a good job of highlighting backroom deals--the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase -- that polluted the process. But the larger narrative came to resemble a long-running soap opera in which the plot made sense only if you had been following all the previous twists and turns.

Against this backdrop, the cable news chatter broke down along ideological lines. The health-care bill was either a valiant attempt to fix a broken system but didn't go far enough (as some MSNBC hosts had it) or an unsavory attempt to shove America down the road to bankrupting socialism (as some Fox News hosts warned). On Sunday, Fox rotated news anchors with such opinion hosts as Neil Cavuto, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity; liberal host Ed Schultz co-anchored much of MSNBC's coverage, joined mainly by liberal guests and former Democratic staffers.

In the end, the subject may simply have been too dense for the media to fully digest. If you're a high-information person who routinely plows through 2,000-word newspaper articles, you had a reasonably good grasp of the arguments. For a busy electrician who plugs in and out of the news, the jousting and the jargon may have seemed bewildering.

Once the law takes effect -- its provisions stretched out over years -- perhaps journalists can help separate rhetoric from reality. That is, if we don't lose interest and move to the next hot controversy.

Too good to check?

Politico's strong health care coverage last week was marred by a boneheaded move.

A reporter posted a blog item Friday on what purported to be a House Democratic staff memo on adjusting future Medicare reimbursement rates, without saying it had been provided by Republican sources. Democrats called the document fabricated, and Politico pulled it.

The Web site, known for its fast-paced style, said it wasn't clear if the memo was "an outright hoax" and that it was following "an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: When in doubt, leave it out." Actually, a better rule of thumb would have been verifying before publishing.

Defending Beck

When Roger Ailes sat down with his Washington bureau staffers last week, he was asked about my column on the deep divide within Fox News over the growing prominence and controversial remarks of Glenn Beck.

"For the first time in our 14 years we've had people apparently shooting in the tent from within the tent . . . taking an offhand comment and turning this into a major war," network sources quote the Fox News chairman as saying. "We prefer people in the tent not dumping on other people in the tent." As several blogs have reported, Ailes also said that Beck's show is "his opinion, it's not the opinion of Fox News."

And he seemed to suggest the unnamed dissenters work in Washington: "Defend the family if you can; if you really have a problem go to your supervisor." Or leave: "There are no locks on the outside of our doors."

Beck has his supporters, but the discontent reaches well beyond the nation's capital. The dateline on that column was New York.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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