Amid the furious coverage of Sen. Max Baucus' effort in the Senate Finance Committee to produce a bipartisan health care bill, the media have missed one important fact: there is already a Senate health reform bill.
For instance, describing the status of health care reform in Congress during a recent NPR special report, Robert Siegel described the Senate's "progress" as "glacial," pointing only to negotiations among the Finance Committee's Gang of Six:
SIEGEL (host): Congress adjourned with things in a muddle. Both chambers failed to meet President Obama's ambitious timetable: one bill in each house before they left town. There was some progress. In the House, three committees approved revised versions of the original bill, H.R. 3200 America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. The three bills have to be merged into one, with floor debate and a vote possible this fall. Over in the Senate progress was glacial. The Gang of Six, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Finance Committee met daily through much of July to craft a bipartisan compromise. They left town without reaching an agreement.
In their September 8 Washington Post article, Paul Kane, Ben Pershing and Perry Bacon, Jr. wrote that the Senate "has been stalled all summer" on health reform.
Many Democrats do not want the House to act until they know what will happen in the Senate. That chamber has been stalled all summer as a bipartisan group of six senators on the Finance Committee has tried to reach a compromise that does not include a public option, costs much less than the $1.2 trillion House version and does not include a surtax on the wealthy.
If the Senate bill does not include a public option, many House Democrats will not want to vote for it in their version, because it would be unlikely to survive a House-Senate conference on the two measures.
Contrary to the media narrative that the Senate has "been stalled" and that its "progress" been "glacial," there is in fact a Senate health bill. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a bill in mid July, The Affordable Health Choices Act, which then-Chairman Ted Kennedy praised:
"I could not be prouder of our Committee. We have done the hard work that the American people sent us here to do. We have considered hundreds of proposals. Where we have been able to reach principled compromise, we have done so. Where we have not been able to resolve our differences, we have treated those with whom we disagree with respect and patience," Chairman Kennedy said. "As we move from our committee room to the Senate floor, we must continue the search for solutions that unite us, so that the great promise of quality affordable health care for all can be fulfilled."
The HELP bill includes a public option, employer mandate, and subsidies that people making up to 400% of the poverty line can use to purchase insurance. Combined with an expansion of Medicaid (which the HELP committee lacks the authority to include in legislation), 97% of Americans would be covered under the bill.
This is not a simple, technical oversight on the part of NPR and The Post. Disappearing the HELP bill is a problem because it creates the false impression that the Finance Committee alone speaks for the Senate, and that House and Senate Democrats are not on the same page about what health reform means -- all of which baselessly boosts the importance of whatever the Finance Committee eventually produces.
In reality, the bill that Finance will drop, which Baucus' legislative framework indicates will exclude a public option, is the congressional outlier, not the standard-setter. Indeed, like the House bill that has moved through three committees in that chamber, the HELP bill includes a public option. Baucus' framework has not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but, like the House bill, the HELP bill has been scored -- twice. And Baucus' framework at best only represents the work of six of 23 senators on his committee. By contrast, both the HELP and House bills were actually voted and passed by full committees, and before the August recess at that.
So in the media's continuing coverage of the machinations of the Finance Committee, maybe they could provide this fact-based perspective to their listeners, viewers and readers. It doesn't make for the sexy, conflict-based narrative that they do so love, but it does make for real journalism.
From Joe Scarborough's Twitter account:
More than 60 advertisers have reportedly dropped their ads from Glenn Beck's Fox News program. Here are his September 8 sponsors, in the order they appeared:
ColorOfChange.org today confirmed that six new companies whose ads aired recently during Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck program have pledged to not to run ads on the show going forward. The additions -- Aegon, Ashley Furniture, Humana, Luxottica Retail (retail parent of LensCrafters and Pearle Vision), United States Postal Service and Wyeth Consumer Healthcare -- bring the number of companies boycotting Glenn Beck to 62. ColorofChange.org launched its campaign against Beck last month after the Fox News Channel host called President Obama a "racist" who "has a deep-seated hatred for white people" during an appearance on Fox & Friends.
For months, Newsmax has been running a campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of Bernard Kerik, the former New York police chief and would-be Homeland Security secretary currently under indictment on numerous corruption charges -- indeed, Newsmax loves Kerik so much it made him a columnist. That campaign moved to an absurd level with an article in the September edition of its magazine, hyperbolically headlined "Bernie Kerik: The Trial of an American Hero." Newsmax thought so much of this piece that a PDF of it was created and posted on the Newsmax website. But writers Dave Eberhart and Jim Meyers hide facts in order to portray Kerik is the victim of "overzealous federal prosecutors."
Eberhart and Meyers allow Kerik's attorney to criticize "government tactics in this case, especially the recent third indictment in a new jurisdiction, Washington, D.C." But they fail to accurately explain why those charges were filed in the first place, repeating a claim in an earlier article by Eberhart that the dismissal of certain charges in the New York-based indictment against Kerik "apparently irked the prosecutors, who decided on May 26 to open up the new indictment against Kerik in D.C., including charging him with crimes [Judge Stephen] Robinson had dismissed."
In fact, those charges were dropped specifically so they could be filed in D.C. The judge essentially told prosecutors to do exactly what they did -- as Newsmax itself reported at the time.
Eberhart and Meyers also obfuscate about what exactly Kerik is charged with doing, selectively citing charges that they feel can be easily rebutted. There's no mention, for example, of what The Washington Post described as a $250,000 loan allegedly granted to him on an interest-free basis by an Israeli businessman that Kerik allegely failed to disclose on federal tax returns and when he was nominated by President Bush to be Homeland Security secretary in 2004. There's also no mention of Kerik's alleged failure to report $500,000 in income to the IRS or falsely claiming tens of thousands of dollars in tax deductions.
Eberhart and Meyers reference an inquiry into "whether he aided a New Jersey construction firm in gaining city permits in return for a lowball price on the home work" on Kerik's house without mentioning that, as the Post also reported, the construction firm in question was under investigation by four government agencies for ties to organized crime at the time it did the work for Kerik.
The writers also falsely suggest that one of the charges Kerik faces involves wiretapped phone conversations with then-Westchester County District Attorney (and current TV judge) Jeanine Pirro, who "asked him to conduct surveillance on her husband, whom she suspected of marital infidelity. According to published sources, the tapes indicate Kerik had tried to talk Pirro out of the surveillance." But since Kerik apparently did nothing wrong, he was apparently never charged in that particular incident; the recordings came to light as part of the corruption probe of Kerik.
(Just as Newsmax enthusiastically touted Kerik's DHS nomination at the time, it promoted Pirro's abortive Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2005, declaring any and all unsavory claims against her -- and there were many, largely centering around her two-timing, out-of-wedlock-siring, tax-cheat hubby -- to be "old news" even though most people weren't aware of them.)
Eberhart and Meyers are much more interested in burnishing Kerik's credentials. For instance, they note that "Kerik worked for the Interior Ministry in Baghdad training police recruits," but not that, as the Post reported, the stint "has been widely judged a failure" because Kerik abruptly quit after two months -- or, as Sen. John McCain put it: "Kerik was supposed to be there to help train the police force. He stayed two months, and one day left, just up and left."
The writers cranked up the melodramatic aspect of Kerik's purported victimhood:
Today, Bernard Kerik is fighting for his innocence with a criminal guillotine hanging over his head. Cut off from most of his business and media access, his income has withered.
Despite depleting his entire personal wealth, Kerik is going into the final rounds a wounded, but not beaten, man.
In other words, Eberhart and Meyers aren't doing reporting -- they're writing a hagiography.
Looks like somebody has been reading Betsy McCaughey's awful column. MSNBC's Contessa Brewer adopts McCaughey's the-bill-is-too-long nonsense, complete with a highly misleading prop:
That stack of paper sure is intimidating. But maybe Brewer should have let her viewers know that it's twice as high as it would be if legislation was printed the way pages are typically printed? After all, your twelve-year-old's Social Studies report can look intimidatingly long, too, if you print out one letter per page.
Brewer's stunt with the printout of the bill was deeply dishonest -- the kind of demagoguery that is annoying but expected from partisans trying to kill a bill, but not from journalists.
And Brewer's next step was just as bad. Since when does journalism consist of portraying complex issues as even more complex than they are, rather than explaining them?
Maybe people would understand health care a little better if MSNBC explained it to them, rather than exaggerating how incomprehensible it is.
Bowden has a long piece online, which looks at the future of journalism at a time of partisan programming and deep staff cut-backs. He's correctly concerned about how those two trends are changing the type of news consumers get.
Bowden focuses on the Sotomayor coverage, and specifically how an amateur online conservative sleuth was able to dig up some dirt on Sotomayor before she was even nominated. How small-time blogger Morgen Richmond was able to uncover the video of her 2005 Duke University appearance where Sotomayor said amidst laughter that appellate judges "make law." And how Richmond uncovered Sotomayor's now-famous "wise Latina woman" quote from an address at Berkeley Law School.
Bowden, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, sees danger for journalism in simply airing the oppo work of a partisan like Richmond:
Richmond seems a bright and fair-minded fellow, but he makes no bones about his political convictions or the purpose of his research and blogging. He has some of the skills and instincts of a reporter but not the motivation or ethics. Any news organization that simply trusted and aired his editing of Sotomayor's remarks, as every one of them did, was abdicating its responsibility to do its own reporting. It was airing propaganda. There is nothing wrong with reporting propaganda, per se, so long as it is labeled as such.
Thankfully, Bowden did what so few Beltway reporters who covered Sotomayor did: He put the Duke and Berkeley comments in context. Bowden noted specifically that the "wise Latina woman" remark was made in reference to discrimination cases. A key point that reporters and pundits pretty much refused to do this summer, even though they knew the facts.
But that's also where I think Bowden let the press off way too easy in his piece, which focused on TV news outlets which aired the Sotomayor video clip that Richmond had unearthed from Duke, as well as the "wise Latina woman" passage he found. I don't think there was anything wrong, journalistically, with broadcasting the clip or referencing the quote Richmond found. The problem with the Sotomayor coverage--and print outlets were just as guilty as television--was that journalists refused to include the obvious context of the Duke and Berkley quotes.
Back during the confirmation coverage I stopped counting, but at one point I found more than 900 "wise Latina woman" news references that failed to mention her quote was made in the context of discrimination cases. The media, through no fault of an online activist like Richmond, categorically failed to include the context. The press simply reported as fact that Sotomayor had claimed that a female Hispanic judge would make better decisions from the bench, on all types of cases, than would a white male.
None of that is the fault of conservative sleuth Morgen Richmond, who helped uncover the Sotomayor nuggets. And journalists were right to report on the video clip and speech passage that he highlighted. The epic fail came when journalists consciously, and uniformly, failed to provide proper context. For like, five weeks running.
And on that count, I think Bowden goes way too easy on the press.
UPDATED: Blogger Scott Rosenberg makes a similar point:
The trouble with all this is that Bowden is focusing his ire on the wrong people. Richmond is not, as far as I know, claiming to be a journalist — and yet, as Bowden admits, he is actually "fair-minded" enough to feel that the Sotomayor quote was maybe not that big a deal. Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn't that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren't they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?
According to the Orlando Sentinel, on September 20, "MSNBC political analyst Michelle Bernard" will moderate a two-hour special featuring Bill Cosby and NAACP president Ben Jealous, "focusing on the parenting, education and health issues facing the poor in the United States."
Michelle Bernard is a frequent MSNBC guest, particularly on Hardball.
Bernard is also the president and CEO of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, in which capacity she is busy spreading lies about health care.
Like this one: "More American women are going to die of breast cancer if you and I surrender to President Obama's nationalized healthcare onslaught."
Here's how FactCheck.org describes the health care lies coming from Bernard's IWF:
A False Appeal to Women's Fears
Republican-leaning group claims health care legislation could lead to 300,000 deaths from breast cancer, but uses old statistics, faulty logic and false insinuations.
A conservative group with Republican ties called the Independent Women's Forum is airing an ad that says "300,000 American women with breast cancer might have died" if our health care were "government run" like England's, citing the American Cancer Society as a source for the figure. In fact, a spokesman for the cancer society's advocacy arm says that figure is "not reliable" and adds: "[I]t's not one that we have ever cited; it's not one that we would ever cite." Furthermore, an epidemiologist with the cancer society told us that the way this figure was calculated was "really faulty."
There's much more, but the bottom line is clear: Michelle Bernard and the Independent Women's Forum are lying in order to stop health care reform.
So why is MSNBC turning to Bernard to moderate a two-hour special about, among other things, "health issues"?
Could it be that MSNBC is in favor of lying in order to stop health care reform?
A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz expressed bewilderment that people believe lies about health care -- even as he was validating people who tell lies about health care, like Fred Barnes:
Here's an example: Later in today's column, Kurtz quotes Fred Barnes' latest Wall Street Journal column. In that column, Barnes promotes the death panel nonsense that Howard Kurtz knows and says is false. Yet not only does Kurtz quote the Barnes column, he doesn't write a single word of criticism of Barnes. (He does quote Time's Joe Klein blasting Barnes, but doing it this way sets up a he-said/she-said in which some readers will dismiss Klein's views.)
This, Mr. Kurtz, is why people like Barnes feel free to spread lies: They know people like you will keep quoting them as though they are serious thinkers who deserve a place at the center of the public dialogue.
So who do you think Kurtz gives the last word about Barack Obama's speech tonight in today's Media Notes column? That's right: Fred Barnes.
If you treat people who spread lies as respectable and important thinkers, they're going to keep telling lies. If they keep telling lies, the public will believe lies. I suppose you can come up with a justification for why treating them as respectable and important thinkers constitutes acceptable journalistic practice, but you certainly can't smack your head in wonder at the fact that the public believes lies told by the people you are treating as respectable and important thinkers.
Meanwhile, in an online discussion yesterday, Kurtz continued to suggest the media debunked the "death panel" nonsense as well as they could have:
Re: Numerous news organizations said flatly that this was a bogus charge, and yet, for a great many Americans, it didn't matter.: I wonder if this points to a basic problem for "traditional" media -- one that may not be easily solved. News organizations did point out that the "death panels" did not exist, but it took them a while. The first headlines said "Sarah Palin attacks Obama's 'death panels'". Then, after there was time to investigate, the stories changed to "nothing in the proposed bills supports Palin's accusations." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general idea, and it was too late. The story had already spread through the non-traditional media.
Howard Kurtz: I don't think speed was the issue, as you'll see in the timeline below. But the bogus "death panels" did seem to crowd out other coverage -- in other words, even as journalists said and wrote that there were no such panels, they kept the controversy alive in a way that may have made some people say, hmmm.
From my column last month:
Less than seven hours after Palin posted her charge Aug. 7, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann called it an "absurd idea." That might have been dismissed as a liberal slam, but the next day, ABC's Bill Weir said on "Good Morning America": "There is nothing like that anywhere in the pending legislation."
On Aug. 9, Post reporter Ceci Connolly said flatly in an A-section story: "There are no such 'death panels' mentioned in any of the House bills." That same day, on NBC's "Meet the Press," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks called Palin's assertion "crazy." CNN's Jessica Yellin said on "State of the Union," "That's not an accurate assessment of what this panel is." And on ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos said: "Those phrases appear nowhere in the bill."
I have previously explained why Connolly's article was not the effective debunking Kurtz expected it to be. The fact that the nation's most famous media critic is surprised that throwaway line in Connelly's article was insufficient is simply amazing.