Fox News, NRO, Limbaugh run with "death book" smears

››› ››› DIANNA PARKER

Following false accusations that Democrats' health care reform legislation would institute "death panels" for the elderly, H. James Towey claimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the Obama administration revived a Veterans Health Administration (VHA) booklet on advanced planning directives that would "steer vulnerable individuals to conclude for themselves that life is not worth living," calling the booklet a "death book." As with the death panel smear, conservative media -- particularly Fox News -- have promoted Towey's false "death book" claim, ignoring facts that undermine Towey's rhetoric.

Towey claims Veterans Administration has a "Death Book"

Towey: VHA manual tells veterans to "hurry-up-and-die." In an August 18 Wall Street Journal column headlined, "The Death Book for Veterans," Towey, director of faith-based initiatives under President Bush, asserted that "government bureaucrats are greasing the slippery slope that can start with cost containment but quickly become a systematic denial of care." Towey continued:

Last year, bureaucrats at the VA's National Center for Ethics in Health Care advocated a 52-page end-of-life planning document, "Your Life, Your Choices." It was first published in 1997 and later promoted as the VA's preferred living will throughout its vast network of hospitals and nursing homes. After the Bush White House took a look at how this document was treating complex health and moral issues, the VA suspended its use. Unfortunately, under President Obama, the VA has now resuscitated "Your Life, Your Choices."

[...]

When the government can steer vulnerable individuals to conclude for themselves that life is not worth living, who needs a death panel? [The Wall Street Journal, 8/18/09]

"Your Life, Your Choices" is not a "death book." The booklet emphasizes that "your wishes will direct future health care decisions" and presents preserving one's life "using any means possible" as an option to consider. An August 23 post by VoteVets.org blogger Richard Smith criticized Towey's assertion that "Your Life, Your Choices" presents "end-of-life choices in a way aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions," writing: "Really, if the document was really trying to get veterans to pull the plug on themselves, then first suggesting to them that their life should be prolonged at all costs is a pretty stupid way to do it."

Towey's organization is selling "Five Wishes" booklet on end-of-life issues. As Media Matters for America noted, the organization Towey founded, Aging with Dignity, sells "Five Wishes," a booklet that, like "Your Life, Your Choices," is designed to guide people in the creation of a living will. Huffington Post news editor Marcus Baram reported on August 22 that "Towey seems to have his own axe to grind" in criticizing "Your Life, Your Choices" in that Towey "has repeatedly tried to get the government to spend millions to purchase his 'Five Wishes' book," citing "VA sources."

"Death book" claim begins to spread

NRO: Towey op-ed a "must-read." An August 19 post on National Review Online's blog The Corner, titled, "Would You Like Some Hemlock with Your Jello? -- Government-run 'End-of-Life' Counseling at the VA," called the op-ed a "must-read."

Hannity: Is document "equivalent of a death panel?" On his August 20 Fox News show, Sean Hannity said during an interview with Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele: "[A]pparently, they've got this document that they show veterans at all our VA hospitals, and they asked -- there's a section in which it says, have you ever heard anyone say, I'm a vegetable, pull the plug; I'm a severe burden financially on my family; I'm causing severe emotional damage to my family?" Hannity asked Steele if the manual is "the equivalent of a death panel," and Steele replied that "in my view, it very well could be."

Palin: VHA "encourages veterans to forego care as they make end-of-life decisions." In an August 20 post on her Facebook page, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin linked to Towey's op-ed, adding that "Jim Towey writes in The Wall Street Journal that the Veterans Administration encourages veterans to forego care as they make end-of-life decisions."

Limbaugh: Obama asking veterans to volunteer to die. On the August 21 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh used the term "death book" to describe the booklet and asserted that Obama is "asking veterans to basically say, 'You know what? I want to check out. The hell with this. I live in a nursing home. Screw it. Pull the plug. Where's Doctor Kevorkian?' This thing is obsessed with death. It's obsessed with you deciding -- or with some -- maybe some influence -- that your life isn't worth living. It's -- there's nothing positive in this."

Fox News Sunday interviews Towey, promotes "death book" rhetoric

Wallace: "[W]e're going to talk exclusively to the man who uncovered this book, and you'll find out why he calls this the death book." On the August 21 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace promoted his August 23 interview with Towey:

WALLACE: I want to tell you about Sunday, because we actually have something that isn't a joke, that I think is a very serious story. There has been a lot of talk, of course, about the death panels, and some people have said that is overstated. We're going to tell you on Sunday about this book. This is a book that is being currently used by the Veterans Administration for end-of-life counseling on -- to veterans, either those returning -- oftentimes with terrible injuries -- or veterans up to the end of their life.

It is a book that is being used on end-of-life counseling, and I think you're going to be shocked when you find what it is that health care providers and the Veterans Administration right now are telling, advising, asking veterans. And which certainly seems to lead in the direction of pulling the plug, if you ever get to that situation at the end of life. And we're going to talk exclusively to the man who uncovered this book, and you'll find out why he calls this the death book. This is current Veterans Administration policy -- the kind of end-of-life counseling that is going on VA hospitals across the country right now.

Wallace, Towey advance "death book," "death panel" smears. From Towey's August 23 Fox News Sunday interview:

WALLACE: We're going to do something different here today. Usually we discuss the news, but today we're going to tell you about something you may never have heard about -- what critics are calling the "death book."

[...]

WALLACE: Let's start with an overview. What's wrong with this material, "Your Life, Your Choices," that the VA is using for end-of-life counseling right now?

In the article that you wrote in The Wall Street Journal, in which you disclosed this, you say that the message is clear: hurry up and die.

TOWEY: Well, the message that they want to communicate, I think, is that if you have a stroke or if you have a coma situation, that somehow your life has lost a little value and it may not be worth living anymore.

My problem with the document, Chris, is that the author of it is a proponent of assisted suicide; he's way out there on that issue. And the VA has been using this -- a new directive just came out in July urging providers to refer patients to it. So, in my view, there should be a balanced treatment. And this is a slippery slope that kind of makes people -- when you look at the document, it makes people feel like they're a burden and that they should do the decent thing and die.

WALLACE: All right. We're going to get to the specifics in this book in a second, but I want to ask you another general question.

President Obama calls talk of a government-run death panel a, quote, "extraordinary lie." But I want to put up what you said in your Wall Street Journal article this week. You said the following: "When the government can steer vulnerable individuals to conclude for themselves that life is not worth living, who needs a death panel?" [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 08/23/09]

Fox News Sunday interviews rife with distortions, falsehoods

Wallace, Towey misrepresented passage that says, "If I'm a vegetable, pull the plug." Prompted by Wallace, Towey cited a passage in "Your Life, Your Choices" that reads, "I'm a vegetable, pull the plug," as an example of why he thinks "the document is so fundamentally flawed that the VA ought to throw it out." In his op-ed, Towey suggested that language was "aimed at steering users toward predetermined conclusions, much like a political 'push poll.' " As Media Matters noted, however, the context of that passage was an explanation of the importance of being very specific regarding your end-of-life preferences. "Your Life, Your Choices" says that statements like, "If I'm a vegetable, pull the plug," can mean different things to different people.

Wallace, Towey falsely claimed Bush suspended purported "death book" use. During the interview, Towey claimed that the Bush administration "pulled" the document in 2007, and Wallace claimed that "President Bush suspended the use of this document" and that the Obama administration "reinstate[d] it." In reality, Bush's VA promoted the document throughout his presidency, as documented by Daily Kos blogger Jed Lewison. Indeed, an online document on the VA's website labeled, "Reviewed/Updated Date: December 29, 2008," states, "To learn about a Living Will, read 'Your Life, Your Choices.' "

Wallace falsely claimed VHA document directs VA doctors "to refer all veterans" to "Your Life, Your Choices." During his interview with Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tammy Duckworth on the August 23 edition of Fox News Sunday, Wallace claimed that "more than a month ago -- VA health practitioners were told to refer all veterans -- not just end-of-life veterans, but all 24 million veterans -- to this document, 'Your Life, Your Choices.' " In fact, as Media Matters documented, the VHA document to which Wallace was referring actually directs patients to " 'Your Life, Your Choices' ... or other published resources." [Fox News Sunday, 8/23/09]

Fox, NRO continue to promote "death book" smear after Towey interview

Bream: "[C]ontroversy" over "death book." On the August 23 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ, Fox News legal analyst Shannon Bream hosted Wallace to talk about his interview with Towey and repeatedly promoted the idea of a "death book." Bream said that a "controversy that is brewing around what is being called the death book," prompting Wallace to respond that "it seems to at the very least raise and some would say even steer veterans at the end of their life to pulling the plug."

Goldberg: Duckworth "defended this irretrievably gross book on the merits and attacked the messenger to boot." In an August 23 NRO post, editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg adopted "death book" and "death panels" while attacking Duckworth's "very lame" "talking points." From Goldberg's post:

I just watched Tammy Duckworth try her best to defend the V.A. "death book" on Fox News Sunday. The Iraq War veteran was severely wounded as an army aviator, losing both her legs, and is currently an assistant secretary at the V.A. The administration sent her out to defend the book and to push back against Jim Towey, who first raised the issue. While she admirably held her own, her talking points were often very, very lame (she kept insinuating that Towey's bitter his $5 book isn't free of charge to vets). The upshot was she defended this irretrievably gross book on the merits and attacked the messenger to boot. And here's the thing: The death book is doomed, doomed. It's obvious Obama will pull the thing, because it's the right thing to do and because it's a political no-brainer while he's trying to shake off the "death panel" albatross. So they sent out Duckworth to stake a position that will be reversed, making her look like a fool. Just give it time.

Goldberg: "Metaphysically grotesque document" is "telling veterans that maybe they should be euthanized." On the August 24 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, Goldberg claimed that "[t]here's no way Obama can be trying to sell a massive new health care plan that has this sort of specter of death panels hovering around it, and at the same time support this really sort of metaphysically grotesque document, which is telling veterans that maybe they should be euthanized." Host Megyn Kelly also falsely claimed that the administration "requires physicians at VAs to at least refer their patients to this." From the segment:

KELLY: Let me ask you about that, because Tammy Duckworth said, look, it hasn't -- she maintains it hasn't been in effect. Now, the facts appear to belie that, because this has been up on their website since July 2, and requires physicians at VAs to at least refer their patients to this booklet. So, put aside that fact. Shouldn't the Obama administration just take this down? Maybe they inherited it from the Bush administration -- shouldn't it just come down off the website? End of controversy?

GOLDBERG: Of course they should. I mean, I think the politics are obvious, the morality is obvious. And that's one of the reasons why it's so outrageous to send poor Tammy Duckworth out there, not armed with the facts, who's going to get thrown under the bus in two weeks time anyway, because there's no way Obama can be trying to sell a massive new health care plan that has this sort of specter of death panels hovering around it, and at the same time support this really sort of metaphysically grotesque document, which is telling veterans that maybe they should be euthanized. [America's Newsroom, 08/24/09]

"Death panel" redux

Conservative media also promoted false "death panel" term. After serial misinformer Betsy McCaughey falsely claimed that the House health care reform bill instituted "mandatory" end-of-life counseling sessions for seniors, Palin wrote in a post on her Facebook page: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil." Numerous media outlets -- including Fox News -- promoted Palin's "death panel" smear and the related claim -- initiated by McCaughey -- that the bill would "absolutely require" that seniors on Medicare undergo end-of-life counseling "that will tell them how to end their life sooner," even though those claims had been debunked in the media 40 times over.

Transcripts

From the August 20 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

HANNITY: Well, I want to ask you this. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal, and it talks about, quote, "the death books" for veterans. Have you -- I don't know if you had an opportunity to read this, because we've talked a lot about these death panels. Governor Palin -- Democrats, denied it existed then they pulled it out.

But among the many things, apparently they've got this document that they show veterans at all our VA hospitals, and they asked -- there's a section in which it says, have you ever heard anyone say, I'm a vegetable, pull the plug; I'm a severe burden financially on my family; I'm causing severe emotional damage to my family?

Now that exists and was eliminated in the Bush years and brought back under President Obama.

STEELE: Yeah.

HANNITY: Is that the equivalent of a death panel?

STEELE: I -- in my view, it very well could be. And that's the problem here. No one is laying out with any clarity exactly what these panels -- what this composition of medical professionals are going to do.

From the August 21 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

WALLACE: I want to tell you about Sunday, because we actually have something that isn't a joke, that I think is a very serious story. There has been a lot of talk, of course, about the death panels, and some people have said that is overstated. We're going to tell you on Sunday about this book. This is a book that is being currently used by the Veterans Administration for end-of-life counseling on -- to veterans, either those returning -- oftentimes with terrible injuries -- or veterans up to the end of their life.

It is a book that is being used on end-of-life counseling, and I think you're going to be shocked when you find what it is that health care providers and the Veterans Administration right now are telling, advising, asking veterans. And which certainly seems to lead in the direction of pulling the plug, if you ever get to that situation at the end of life. And we're going to talk exclusively to the man who uncovered this book, and you'll find out why he calls this the death book. This is current Veterans Administration policy -- the kind of end-of-life counseling that is going on VA hospitals across the country right now.

From the August 23 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ:

BREAM: Hurricane Bill sweeps past New England, hampering the first family's vacation plans. But as President Obama plans for some downtime in Martha's Vineyard, the health care debate rages. Word today from leading -- excuse me. A controversy that is brewing around what is being called the death book. Earlier today I sat down with Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, to talk all about it.

[begin video clip]

BREAM: A fascinating show today on Fox News Sunday -- they're always great -- but today some brand new information I had never heard before about these so-called death books that involve veterans. What is that all about?

WALLACE: Well, here it is -- 51 pages. Let me -- there you go -- and it's called "Your Life, Your Choices." And this is an end-of-life counseling book that is given to all 24 million veterans in the U.S. It has been in existence since 1997, but it was killed by the Bush administration and just last month reinstated by the Obama administration, and doctors are told to refer veterans to it.

What is troubling about it, and why a fellow named Jim Towey, who was an official -- an adviser in the Bush administration, broke the story in an article in The Wall Street Journal late this week -- is it seems to at the very least raise and some would say even steer veterans at the end of their life to pulling the plug.

[end video clip]

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