The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calmes lead off their article today by writing:
The White House on Monday started a new Web site to fight questionable but potentially damaging charges that President Obama's proposed overhaul of the nation's health care system would inevitably lead to "socialized medicine," "rationed care" and even forced euthanasia for the elderly.
But in introducing the Web site, White House officials were tacitly acknowledging a difficult reality: they are suddenly at risk of losing control of the public debate over a signature issue for Mr. Obama and are now playing defense in a way they have not since last year's campaign.
That's one way to interpret the White House's decision to roll out their new website debunking health care smears. Here's another: The White House is doing it because they realize that the media is unwilling or unable to call those smears false, instead – just to pull an example out of thin air – referring to misleading-to-ridiculous claims that Democratic proposals "would inevitably lead to 'socialized medicine,' 'rationed care' and even forced euthanasia for the elderly" as "questionable but potentially damaging charges."
What makes this particular case even more absurd is that just yesterday, the Times published "A Primer on the Details of Health Care Reform." Unfortunately, Rutenberg and Calmes don't seem to have read it.
If they had, they might have written that claims that health care reform would lead to "socialized medicine" "seem overblown" because "[m]ajor versions of the legislation all rely heavily on a continuation of private health plans" and the CBO has found that under the House bill, 3 million more people would have employer-sponsored insurance in 2016 than would be expected under current law. They also might have called the "euthanasia" claims "unfounded" or noted that the AARP says they're "flat-out lies."
But instead, we get "questionable but potentially damaging." The claims might be true; they might not be? Who can say? What we can say is that repeating them without debunking them – as we just did in our article in The New York Times -- could hurt reform's chances.
As Jamison noted in June:
Following up on my post this morning about combating misinformation by eliminating the incentives for lying, another stumbling block is that a lot of reporters and news organizations seem to think it is adequate to tell the truth once.
That is, if a politician runs around saying something that isn't true -- like that she said "thanks but no thanks" to "bridge to nowhere" funding -- many news organizations will debunk the false claim once. But then they'll go right on quoting the false claim when it is made again and again, without bothering to point out that it is false. And when challenged on this, they'll point out that they did debunk it, three weeks ago.
That isn't good enough, for reasons that should be incredibly obvious. It isn't good enough to tell the truth once.
The Times told the truth yesterday. Today, they don't seem to know what the truth is. Unfortunately for them, their job is to tell the truth every day.