Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz thinks the Washington Post has done a laudable job covering health care reform, and that it's handling of the "Death Panels" lie peddled by conservatives was a particular high point. I don't agree -- perhaps because I've actually read the Post's coverage of that controversy, and Howard Kurtz apparently has not.
Last August, Kurtz pointed to a Washington Post article as an example of the media debunking the death panel lie. But it wasn't a particularly effective example, as I explained at the time. On March 28 of this year, Kurtz again pointed to that same article as an example of his contention that the media handled "death panels" well because "lots of mainstream news organizations said flatly that this was pure fiction." But even if you accept that the Post article in question did a good job of debunking the lie, that overlooks the fact that many other Washington Post articles -- and countless reports by other news outlets -- reported the Right's death panel claims without making clear that they are false. Last August and September, for example, the Washington Post routinely mentioned the claim without indicating their falsity.
That's why I think the Post and the media in general did a bad job of dealing with the death panel lie: They often repeated it without telling readers it wasn't true. As I wrote last week:
Kurtz doesn't seem to understand that debunking a lie occasionally isn't good enough; you have to make clear that it is a lie every time you mention it. And the media, including the Washington Post, have not come close to doing that. So it's true that on August 9, 2009, a Washington Post article by Ceci Connolly "said flatly" that death panels were "pure fiction" -- but it's also true that many, many other Post articles (some of them written or co-written by Connolly, by the way) have failed to do so.
For example, a February 28, 2010 Post article explained the controversy as follows:
"Death panels became part of the debate last summer, after prominent Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, claimed the government would set them up to decide who could live or die."
That's it. Not so much as a hint that it wasn't true.
I find it incredible that anyone -- particularly a person whose job is to assess the media's performance -- would fail to understand this basic point: If you mention a falsehood in two articles, but only make clear that it is false in one, you aren't doing a good job of conveying its falsity.
So I asked Kurtz about it during his online Q&A yesterday:
Q. Health care
You keep praising the media's health-care coverage, noting that news reports -- including some in the Post -- clearly stated that the "Death Panels" claim was false. But many other reports -- including several in the Post -- mention that claim *without* indicating that it was false. Do you think it is adequate for a news organization to *occasionally* make clear the falsity of such claims, or should they do so every time they mention those claims?
A. Howard Kurtz writes:
You'd have to cite me a specific instance. I don't recall a time when The Post gave any credence to the death-panels claim, but obviously reported on the fact that many people came to believe the claim was true.
Two quick points in response:
1) Kurtz must have read the question to quickly. Specific instances are not at all necessary to answer the question. The question is very simple: Is it adequate for a news organization to occasionally make clear the falsity of the claims it reports, or should news organizations make that falsity clear every time they report the claim?
2) Given that Howard Kurtz has praised the Post's handling of the "death panels" claim, and given that he is unaware of the fact that the Post has reported that claim without indicating its falsity, it seems clear that Howard Kurtz has been praising his employer's coverage of a key aspect of the health care debate without first reviewing that coverage.
That second one might be forgivable if Kurtz was any other Post reporter. But Kurtz is the Post's media critic. It's his job to assess media coverage. When he praises the Post's coverage of a controversy, readers have a right to expect that he has actually read that coverage. And they have a right to expect that Kurtz scrutinizes the Post just as thoroughly as he would if he didn't work there -- as he insists he does: "My track record makes clear that I've been as aggressive toward CNN -- and The Washington Post, for that matter -- as I would be if I didn't host a weekly program there."
Since when does "I've been aggressive toward" mean "I praise without reading"?