As fact checkers investigated and debunked claims made in an ad attacking the Affordable Care Act, Fox News and other conservative media used a cancer patient's illness to defend the spot's dishonesty.
The episode is part of an ongoing pattern in the conservative media of promoting anecdotal Obamacare horror stories that have fallen apart under scrutiny.
Michigan resident Julie Boonstra, who is suffering from leukemia, had her existing insurance plan canceled after it failed to meet the law's new guidelines, which forces insurers to provide more comprehensive coverage than in the past. She later signed up for a new plan, which she has said is too expensive, and came to national attention earlier this year after she repeatedly appeared with Republicans attacking the health care law.
Boonstra was featured in an ad released last week by conservative group Americans for Prosperity saying that her new "out-of-pocket costs are so high, it's unaffordable." AFP is largely funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch; their ad targets Rep. Gary Peters (D-MI), who is running for Michigan's soon-to-be open Senate seat, their second such ad in the state.
But the ad's claim hasn't held up. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler investigated the ad and noted that while Boonstra says that her out of pocket health care costs are now "unaffordable," her monthly premiums were "cut in half" and that those savings are just two dollars shy of the maximum she would have to pay thanks to the new caps enacted in the law.
Kessler noted, "the premium savings appear to match whatever out-of-pocket costs she now faces."
It is one thing to say there are higher out-of-pocket costs, as she did at the RNC news conference, but another to assume that those higher costs are not offset in some way by the significantly lower premium. (The $350,000 bone marrow transplant, for instance, would be capped at the out of pocket minimum.) The reality is that eventually Boonstra will hit the maximum and no longer pay anything. So over the course of the year, the difference in the costs could well even out.
The Washington Post isn't the only outlet calling the ad's claims into question. Politifactfound that the ad is "at worst, misleading and, at best, lacking critical context." The Detroit News also reported that "The one-minute ad makes no mention that Boonstra successfully enrolled in a new Blue Cross plan where she's able to retain her University of Michigan oncologist and continues to receive the life-saving oral chemotherapy."
Lawyers representing Rep. Peters sent a letterto TV stations in Michigan which asked them to demand that AFP "provide the factual documentation for its claims if you are going to continue airing this advertisement" and went on to cite the ad's factual inaccuracies.
Despite all of this, in comments to the Postand Detroit News, AFP has continued to stand by its ad.
But AFP hasn't been alone in defending the misleading claims -- as the storyline collapsed, conservative media outlets rushed to salvage the wreckage, invoking Boonstra's condition in order to deflect the criticism.
When Fox & Friends hosted Boonstra on February 24, co-host Steve Doocy described the ad as "potent" and "powerful." He told Boonstra that Rep. Peters "essentially called you a liar" without addressing the reporting from fact checkers who noted that the ad's claims are inaccurate.
Megyn Kelly discussed the controversy surrounding the ad on her February 24 Kelly File program. While she acknowledged the faulty claims in the ad (and had done so on a previous program where Boonstra appeared), Kelly took issue with Peters' response. She characterized the letter from his lawyers to the TV station as "attacking a leukemia patient" and said Peters was "a U.S. congressman going after a leukemia patient."
Also appearing on The Kelly File, Ellison Barber of the Washington Free Beacon argued that the congressman was attempting to "limit someone's free speech."
Other conservative media sources have taken a similar approach, attacking Democrats for pushing back on the ad and accusing the mainstream media of covering up the story.
Byron York of the Washington Examiner explained that in his view, "Regardless of the details of her case, Boonstra is a victim of Obamacare falsehoods and of credulous journalists who let the president get away with it until it was too late." He added that criticism of the ad was unfair because ajournalist's "first priority should be fact-checking politicians, not private citizens exercising their First Amendment rights."
Peter Roff at US News and World Report wrotethat "powerful allies" were helping Rep. Peters to "silence a woman and her health care story," and described the push back against the ad as an attempt to "silence" Boonstra "because he doesn't like the story she has to tell."
The Media Research Center's Newsbusters blog complained that "a story of a prominent Democratic politician trying to bully the media into silencing opposition to ObamaCare should be national news."
AFP has also joined in this line of defense. The organization's director of public affairs responded to criticism of the ad from The Washington Post's Greg Sargent by accusing him of being "So emotionally invested in cheerleading for O-care, you're blind to the pain it's causing a cancer victim."