Called On To Explain Big Story, Media Botches Obamacare

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The rocky rollout of Obamacare has prompted commentators to attack the president and his team for having three years to plan for the launch and still not getting it right. That's a legitimate critique as problems persist. But the same can be said for an awful lot of reporters doing a very poor job covering Obamacare. They also had three years to prepare themselves to accurately report the story.

So what's their excuse?

The truth is, the Beltway press rarely bothers to explain, let alone cover, public policy any more. With a media model that almost uniformly revolves around the political process of Washington (who's winning, who's losing?), journalists have distanced themselves from the grungy facts of governance, especially in terms of how government programs work and how they effect the citizenry.

But explaining is the job of journalism. It's one of the crucial roles that newsrooms play in a democracy. And in the recent case of Obamacare, the press has failed badly in its role. Worse, it has actively misinformed about the new health law and routinely highlighted consumers unhappy with Obamacare, while ignoring those who praise it.  

As Joshua Holland noted at Bill Moyers' website, "lazy stories of "sticker shock" and cancellations by reporters uninterested in the details of public policy only offer the sensational half of a complicated story, and that's providing a big assist to opponents of the law."

It's part of a troubling trend. Fresh off of blaming both sides for the GOP's wholly-owned, and thoroughly engineered, government shutdown, the press is now botching its Obamacare reporting by omitting key facts and context  -- to the delight of Republicans. It's almost like there's a larger newsroom pattern in play.

And this week the pattern revolved around trying to scare the hell out of people with deceiving claims about how Obamacare had forced insurance companies to "drop" clients and how millions of Americans had "lost" their coverage.

Not quite. 

Insurance companies informed some customers that plans that didn't meet minimum standards required by Obamacare would be phased out. But the part often obscured or downplayed in breathless "cancellation" news reports is that consumers are able to shop for new plans that in many cases are superior to the old ones, and often less expensive (or partially paid for by subsidies). In other words, they're transitioning from one plan to another.

It's understandable why right-wing partisan voices only interested in trashing Obamacare and damaging the president would push claims, as recently did, that nearly one million Californians have "lost" their insurance because of the new law. (They didn't.) It's less clear why mainstream reporters would traffic in that same kind of misleading claims.

Mediaite's Tommy Christopher has been methodically dissecting erroneous and painfully misleading Obamacare reports this week. He concluded one big problem is "a reliance on consumers who aren't insurance experts, and reporters who aren't much better."

Reporters, and especially television reporters, seem  anxious to interview consumers who have been notified by letter that their insurance policy has been canceled and who say they're shocked to find out how expensive purchasing a new plan will be.

But as Christopher discovered, that's often not the case and that consumers and reporters either don't understand the options that are available, or haven't researched the issue enough. (Christopher was able to find much less expensive plans for several consumers touted in TV reports.) That's because (surprise!) the cost of new insurance plans quoted in letters sent by insurance companies often don't  represent the lowest option available via the open exchange.

Just look at the now-infamous CBS report about Florida resident Dianne Barrette who complained her premium under Obamacare would increased tenfold, from $54 a month to $591 a month. (She was quickly invited onto Fox News to tell her tale.) But a woman paying just $54 a month for health insurance didn't set off any red flags among editors at CBS News? Barrette's health plan -- the best she could afford -- was a barely-there "junk health insurance" policy that didn't cover hospitalization, ambulance service, or prescription drugs.

Left unsaid by CBS, as Holland reported, was the fact that under Obamacare Barrette qualified "for a bronze plan, which guarantees free preventive care and coverage for hospitalizations, for only $97 per month -- one-sixth of that headline number that's making the rounds."

Meanwhile, NBC Nightly News profiled another so-called Obamacare "sticker shock" victim and detailed how Deborah Cavallaro's monthly premium would go up from $293 to $484. (She appeared on CNBC to repeat her Obamacare complaints.) But then American Prospect's Paul Waldman did some online shopping and found a plan that Cavallaro qualified for and cost $258 per-month, $35 less than the plan that's being canceled.

"If you find someone who's going to end up paying more thanks to Obamacare, fair enough," wrote Waldman. "Run with the story. But first, you'd better perform the due diligence to find out what a comparable plan really costs."  (Still, lots of reporters don't.)

Christopher noted another glaring omission from the ongoing reporting: "None of these reports take the extra step of explaining the tremendous benefits of the Affordable Care Act, for which most reasonable people wouldn't necessarily mind a bit of a tradeoff."

Also, absent from virtually all the reports is the acknowledgement that insurance companies canceling existing plans in the individual market and consumers being forced to join new ones is not an unusual occurrence. At all.

Obamacare coverage has often been anecdotal journalism at its worst, simply because it's been the same one anecdote told over and over and over.

One CBS report acknowledged, "Industry experts say about half the people getting the letters will pay more -- and half will pay less, thanks to taxpayer subsidies." If that's the case, where are the television news reports featuring the "half" who will soon be paying less for health insurance thanks to Obamacare?

Maybe I've just missed them all? But for this news viewer the pattern seems unmistakable: Consumer who might have to pay more (or more accurately, consumers who think they might have to pay more) are welcomed before the cameras to tell their understandably frustrating tales.

In his bad-news Obamacare report featuring three frustrated health care consumers, CNN's Drew Griffin admitted that he didn't even bother looking for success stories. Instead, as host Anderson Cooper explained, because Obama had given a speech extolling the benefits of  Obamacare, it was CNN's and Griffin's job to "counter against that."

And then there was the absurd CBS report which highlighted one man's complaint that under Obamacare all insurance plans must provide maternity care coverage. As Media Matters noted, instead of interviewing a beneficiary of the maternity coverage, CBS highlighted a man upset that his plan included the key benefit.   

The media rule has been hard to miss: Consumers who have complaints about Obamacare are much, much more newsworthy than those who have praise.

By the way, in case anyone is interested, here are some examples of Obamacare fans (who have been highlighted by local media outlets and personal online postings):   

*Phil Sherburne in Salt Lake City purchased health insurance for his family of five for just $123 per-month.

*California mechanic and small business owner Rakesh Rikhi purchased $500-a-month health insurance, helping him save $5,000 each year.

* Katie Klabusich sometimes paid more for health insurance each month than she did for rent, and bounced around from bad plan to bad plan. Now thanks to Obamacare she has solid health insurance. Or, "HOLY SHIT I HAVE COMPREHENSIVE MEDICAL COVERAGE STARTING IN TEN WEEKS!", as Klabusich wrote on her blog.

Every news story has two sides. Except, apparently, Obamacare.

Posted In
Health Care Reform
Anderson Cooper, Drew Griffin
Show/Publication, CBS News
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