Media Matters: Dragging down the health care debate


As progressives debate the substantive merits of the ever-changing health care reform bill, conservatives insist upon talking about snowstorms and Hitler.

Earlier this week, two very important things happened in the fight for health care reform, one flowing directly from the other. The first was that the public option was officially jettisoned from the Senate bill. The Democratic Senate caucus dropped it along with the proposed Medicare buy-in and will push the bill toward passage without these hotly controversial (within the Senate, if not among the American people) provisions.

The death of the public option then caused a fissure among progressives pushing to reform our health care system, effectively splitting left-leaning wonks and commentators into two camps: those who think that a bill without a public option will be a toothless waste of time and money; and those who think that the bill, while substantially weaker, will still be a vast improvement over the unsustainable status quo.

It's been an interesting debate to watch. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Daily Kos' Markos Moulitsas have argued against passing the public option-less Senate bill, calling it a gift to the already entrenched private health insurance monopolies. Meanwhile, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn have defended the stripped-down bill's merits, focusing on cost controls and the extension of health insurance to millions of people. Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich occupies something of a middle ground, saying the bill is worth passing, but only just barely. Their arguments have the dry weight of substance and reflect a genuine engagement with the issue.

The same can't really be said about the right side of the aisle.

Rush Limbaugh smeared health care reform supporters as "mentally disturbed" before announcing: "People are going to die prematurely with the government in charge of all this." He called Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) "stupid," "ignorant," and "uninformed" for saying she wants to see a health reform bill pass, and said her "ignorance" was born of a failure to recognize that "people are going to be dying." Limbaugh stridently defended the insurance companies' prerogative to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions, was outraged that the bill would extend coverage to victims of domestic violence, and advocated "shutting down the government" to prevent its passage.

Glenn Beck theorized that the health care reform bill is purposefully unconstitutional, and that Democrats are ramming it through Congress to set up some sort of framework in which Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the most powerful person in the country. Rather than bemoan the bill's allowance for victims of domestic violence, Beck compared the bill itself to an abusive spouse. He also offered a rousing defense of those tea partiers who protest health care reform by holding signs comparing President Obama to Hitler and the Nazis.

Speaking of tea partiers, they were at it again this week, holding poorly attended anti-health reform rallies at the Capitol and were cheered on, once again, by Fox News. On the December 15 Fox & Friends, "blind ideologue" Laura Ingraham hyped an Americans for Prosperity-sponsored "Code Red" rally against the "government takeover" of health care. When the rally actually got started, Fox News gave it some fawning live coverage augmented with RNC talking points about how great the tea partiers are for the Republican brand.

Fox Nation gave some love to the "Tea Party 'Die-In' " -- an event where tea partiers would storm the Capitol and pretend to die as a consequence of being denied health care by the government. As David Weigel of The Washington Independent reported, the event itself died a very real death.

And just today, Weekly Standard editor and professional temporary newspaper columnist Bill Kristol argued -- and it's hard to believe that this is actually what he wrote -- that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) should kill the Senate health bill today by supporting the Republican filibuster because it's going to snow in Washington, D.C., this weekend and it will be too dangerous for Hill staffers to drive to work. Incidentally, the conservative media had a lot to write about Ben Nelson this week. More on that below.

There exists right now a yawning divide in the quality of commentary and argumentation regarding health care reform. As the Senate bill has gone through the legislative meat grinder, leading progressive voices have shifted their rhetoric and opinions based on the changing conditions. Top-flight conservatives like Limbaugh and Beck, on the other hand, were screaming "Hitler" and "dictatorship" when the public option was on the table, and their tune hasn't changed now that it's no longer under consideration.

If anything, they're only going to get more shrill and irrational as the Senate bill moves closer and closer to a vote. The last thing they want is reasoned discourse. They'd much rather cancel the vote on account of weather.

Other major stories this week

White House threatens Nelson? Oh come Offutt

Let's do a quick thought experiment. Imagine that you are a nameless, faceless, party-less Senate aide who doesn't much like Obama or the Democratic push for health care reform and you're eager to discredit both with some kind of juicy scandal. But here's the problem -- because you have no name, face, or party, most people aren't going to give you a whole lot of credence. Also, the allegation you're trying to peddle has some pretty glaring credibility issues, so you can't risk taking it to the legitimate press because they might do a little fact-checking before running with it, which would inevitably kill it.

So what do you do?

The answer, actually, is quite simple. Take it to that one sector of the media that will believe any ridiculous smear as God's honest truth and won't let facts or common sense get in the way of an otherwise good story: the right-wing media.

This is in reference, of course, to Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb's shockingly implausible report, sourced to an anonymous "Senate aide," that the White House had threatened to close Nebraska's Offutt Air Force base in order to pressure Sen. Nelson to vote in favor of health care reform. The White House denied it, Nelson's office denied it, the whole thing stands athwart sense and reason, and Goldfarb has changed the story as inconvenient facts have undermined his allegations.

But, as is often the case, none of that matters. Soon after Goldfarb filed his report, the ridiculous story was picked up by Limbaugh, Beck, Sean Hannity, and Michelle Malkin. Beck accused the White House of something approximating "treason," and Investor's Business Daily slammed Obama for "playing politics with our national security." And that was the point from the beginning -- just get the story out there and get people talking about it. If the facts come out later, who cares?

It's a formula that's worked well in the past -- remember when candidate Obama "snubbed" wounded troops in Germany because he couldn't bring cameras along? Remember when Obama demanded that Jesus be covered up for a speech he gave at Georgetown University? Or how about when Obama's college thesis was unearthed and it was discovered that he trashed the Constitution? All three of these allegations were poorly sourced, ridiculous on their face, and easily proven false with just a minimum of fact-checking. And yet, they were embraced wholeheartedly by the right-wing media.

People who want to get ridiculous smears like this into the public debate know how the process works. Just feed the remarkable "scoop" to one of the many right-wing ideologues posing as journalists and trust that they'll be incurious enough to repeat it without any fact-checking or skepticism. If the anonymous "Senate aide" behind the Offutt allegation even exists, then he at least deserves some credit for playing Michael Goldfarb like a well-made fiddle.

Budget, credibility, and deficits

One of the favorite conservative arguments against health care reform, particularly when the public option was still on the table, was that an overhaul of the country's health care system would badly exacerbate the already huge budget deficit Obama created with his stimulus program, bank bailouts, and other big-government spending initiatives.

The argument suffered from two big setbacks. First, the Congressional Budget Office found that both the House and Senate health care reform bills, even with the public option, would reduce the deficit. Second, as much as conservatives would like to think that Obama, the big-spending liberal, is responsible for the deficit, the real blame lies with his predecessor.

A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study released this week found that the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan account for over $500 billion of this year's $1.4 trillion deficit, with the economic downturn accounting for another $400 billion. Over the next 10 years, Bush's tax cuts and war spending will account for $7.1 trillion. The CBPP's data meshes nicely with a New York Times analysis from June finding that Bush's tax cutting and war spending were the major contributing factors to this year's deficit.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see conservatives who wholeheartedly supported Bush's economic policies take to the airwaves this week to trash Obama and lie about his economic policies.

Karl Rove, who just might have an ulterior motive for bashing the president, declared that the stimulus package "impeded" economic recovery, even though CBO found that it created or saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and added greatly to the GDP. The crew of Fox & Friends also took a few jabs at the stimulus, falsely claiming that the government spent money to "save" a wine train in Napa Valley (the money was actually for the Army Corps of Engineers project to keep downtown Napa from flooding).

Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal responded to an increase in the number of people filing for unemployment in early December by attacking Obama for predicting "strong job growth" after the Labor Department released a report on November's dropping unemployment rate. Obama had actually said that "there are going to be some months where the [unemployment] reports are a little better, some months where the reports are worse."

And then there's Limbaugh. To have an intelligent discussion on economics, one must first have a semi-firm grasp of reality. Limbaugh has demonstrated that he can't fulfill even that basic requirement, declaring the two Bush presidencies, which oversaw three recessions, "eight years of prosperity."

You get the sense that they might be trying to cover their tracks. After eight years of conservative stewardship of the economy that they supported, media conservatives look at the mess that was left to us, blame it all on the guy who's been in office for 11 months, and attack him for not pursuing the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at NPR's continuing Fox News problem; and Jamison Foser dissects Michael Goldfarb's base closure smear.

I take a look at Glenn Beck and the paranoid style, and Greg Lewis notes Limbaugh's Grinch-like attitude toward health care in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Simon Maloy, deputy research director at Media Matters for America. Maloy also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the web as well as original commentary.

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