Last week, the Washington Post reported on a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll:
The poll found that misconceptions about the legislation persist, including the "death panel" falsehood propagated by opponents of the legislation.
"A year after the town meeting wars of last summer, a striking 36% of seniors said that the law 'allowed a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare', and another 17% said they didn't know," Kaiser Family Foundation chief executive Drew Altman wrote.
Brendan Nyhan argues that "motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception ... 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so."
I would argue that something else surely plays a role: The failure of the media to consistently and clearly explain that the "death panels" claim was false. Sure, most major news organizations made that clear at least once. But they didn't do so consistently.
Let's take the Washington Post, for example, since it reported on the persistence of the myth.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has praised his paper's "death panels" coverage, writing on March 22: "One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of 'death panels.' ... journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue." And Post political reporter Perry Bacon said in June 21 Live Q&A: "If you recall, the death panels issue got traction in conservative media, even as papers like ours did not cover it very much."
But this year alone, Post readers have encountered more than a dozen references to "death panels" that failed to explicitly state that such panels didn't exist. The following articles and columns mention the "death panels" claim without stating its falsity:
"The doctor is (finally) in; Medicare administrator must usher in low-cost, efficient care," David Ignatius, July 9
"A patriot's second act," Dana Milbank, June 3
"Under the new health-care law, what will happen when providers' morals conflict with patients' rights?," Rob Stein, May 11
"History shows that Democrats aren't exactly the boys of summer," Al Kamen, March 26
"44: Grassley touts provisions he authored in health bill he voted against," Michael Shear, March 24
"Three points for conservatives," E.J. Dionne, March 23
"The Republicans who stirred the tea," Dana Milbank, March 22
"Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?; He's their hero, but Palin and the tea partiers need to understand his true legacy," Steven F. Hayward (AEI) March 7
"Political theater with a point," Kathleen Parker, March 3
"Obama ready to advance on health care; In radio address, GOP compromise still offered but has limited shelf life," Anne Kornblut, February 28
"Trig and political calculus," Kathleen Parker, February 14
"How can apple pie suddenly turn bad?; To learn what's gone wrong with health-care reform, go back to 1994," Abigail Trafford, February 2
"Funding for health-care interest groups often fuzzy," Dan Eggen, January 7
"Leader without a cause," Richard Cohen, January 5
Yes, some of those are opinion columns, including one written by an AEI staffer rather than a Post employee. That isn't a relevant defense: Opinion columns have the ability to influence readers, too -- otherwise, why would they exist? And the Washington Post is responsible for everything that appears in its pages.
And, to be sure, some of those references are critical of the "death panels" rhetoric. The March 23 E.J. Dionne piece, for example, read:
In its current incarnation, conservatism has taken on an angry crankiness. It is caught up in a pseudo-populism that true conservatism should mistrust -- what on Earth would Bill Buckley have made of "death panels"? The creed is caught up in a suspicion of all reform that conservatives of the Edmund Burke stripe have always warned against.
But it didn't say the "death panels" claim wasn't true. (To Dionne's credit, his July 26 column was explicit: "There were no 'death panels' in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow 'the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.' That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.")
No such credit is owed to Kornblut's February 28 news article, which simply stated "Death panels became part of the debate last summer, after prominent Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, claimed the government would set them up to decide who could live or die." Or Kamen's misleading statement that "the tea partiers got their operation in gear at the usually dull town hall meetings with lawmakers, berating them for supporting those death panels." Really? "those" death panels? Which death panels are "those"?
Washington Post readers shouldn't be surprised to learn that many people still believe in "death panels" -- not when the Post has repeatedly mentioned the death panel claim without debunking it.
Incidentally, Washington Post reporters and editors won't answer this simple question: Does the Post think it is sufficient to occasionally debunk falsehoods, or does the paper believe it should do so every time it prints those falsehoods?
Today's Washington Post:
Although many states won't hold primaries until next month, Obama has appeared at only one campaign rally this year -- for Martha Coakley, who lost a special Senate election in Massachusetts. He has held no big events in any number of states -- including Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Ohio -- with competitive races.
The political calculations are driven in part by Obama's overall approval rating, which has stayed at 53 percent in Washington Post-ABC News polls for several months.
In the anti-establishment climate, some Democrats are saying that it's smart for Obama to keep his distance from candidates in difficult races, allowing them to run against Washington and avoid the downward pull of his approval ratings.
Is the Washington Post under the impression that a 53 percent approval rating is bad?
Did you know that Republicans made a good-faith effort to find agreement on health care over the past year, but they were met by Democratic intransigence and pledge-breaking? It must be true; the Washington Post's Shailagh Murray and Anne Kornblut say so:
During Thursday's session, both sides expressed regret about the way the debate has unfolded. What started nearly a year ago as a good-faith effort to find broad agreement quickly devolved into a partisan grudge match, marred by favors to secure votes and deals cut by the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill with special-interest groups. As several Republicans noted, most key decisions were reached behind closed doors, a breach of Obama's campaign pledge to make health-care negotiations transparent.
"Both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington," Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, said to Obama. "In fact, eight times you said that negotiations on health-care reform would be conducted with the C-SPAN cameras. I'm glad more than a year later that they are here."
No mention anywhere in the article of the Republican ideas that have been incorporated into reform legislation -- and certainly no mention of the fact that despite the incorporation of those ideas, no Republican has supported health care reform, or even indicated what it would take to win his or her vote. And no evidence that Republicans approached anything in "good faith."
The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Michael Fletcher write:
During one of his Afghan review meetings last year, President Obama surprised senior advisers by jumping into a discussion between two military officials about a new study of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The flow of information to the president is usually carefully managed, and no one in the room had briefed Obama on the data. "It's not like we'd sent him the study, but he'd clearly seen it," one adviser said. "It was telling."
What it told of was a president who persists in seeking his own information, beyond what is offered to him. His lawyerly and orderly reliance on facts and data often has created an impression that Obama is cool and detached.
I'm sorry: What?
An anecdote about the President being so interested and involved in the decisions he makes that he seeks out additional information on his own, above and beyond what staff gives him, creates the impression that he is "detached"?
Next the Post will tell us that George W. Bush, by contrast, was an uncommonly engaged president. And the evidence will be that he fell asleep during briefings.
The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut must really want to portray Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton as having faced equal amounts of sexism, despite evidence to the contrary. That's the only way to explain this ridiculous passage:
Despite "lipstick on a pig," "beat the bitch," and "iron my shirt," the 2008 election wasn't just a collection of lowlights for female candidates. It was a chance for the country and for women running for high office to learn what it will take for a woman to someday assume the Oval Office.
Notice the difference between those three examples?
"Beat the bitch" is a reference to a McCain campaign event at which a supporter asked him how he would "beat the bitch," in reference to Clinton. (McCain's response? "That's an excellent question.")
"Iron my shirt" is something a few male members of a Clinton audience yelled at her, suggesting that a woman's place is in the home.
And "lipstick on a pig"? That's a McCain-Palin campaign lie. During last year's presidential campaign, Barack Obama used the phrase "lipstick on a pig" -- a common reference to an unsuccessful attempt to make something unappealing look better. The McCain-Palin campaign then pretended to think Obama was calling Palin a pig, and the media pretended to believe them. It was all so very transparently stupid, and doesn't have anything to do with sexist treatment of female candidates. It has to do with lying politicians, and the media who enable them.
And Kornblut should know "lipstick on a pig" isn't like the others; that it was, instead, a McCain campaign concoction: the article she links to -- an article she wrote -- notes that McCain himself had used the same phrase to describe a Clinton health care proposal. So why is she pretending Barack Obama's use of the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was the equivalent of John McCain praising a questioner who referred to Hillary Clinton as a "bitch"?
Here's the Washington Post's Anne Kornblut on MSNBC, reacting to President Obama saying ACORN is "not the biggest issue facing the country, it's not something I'm paying a lot of attention to":
Of course, that's an easy out for the President. The only problem for him is that after he's weighed in on Kanye West, saying he's not paying attention to something isn't gonna fly quite as well.
Absolute nonsense. Obama's Kanye West comments were off the record small talk, not carefully-considered policy positions. More importantly, it takes about three seconds to get up to speed on the Kanye West controversy. You don't need to do a lot of fact-finding to come to a conclusion about his behavior at the Video Music Awards. The ACORN controversy, on the other hand, is considerably more complicated. It isn't the kind of thing you can get up to speed on through cultural osmosis -- certainly not enough to make actual policy decisions.
Kornblut can't possibly think the President's off-hand comment about Kanye West has anything at all to do with whether he's given the ACORN matter sufficient consideration to have a position on it. So she was going for an amusing line, at the expense of drawing a false equivalence that suggested the president is inconsistent or even dishonest. That's the kind of behavior you might reasonably (if regrettably) expect from a partisan political operative. But why would Anne Kornblut think it's appropriate behavior for a journalist?
Several media reports have noted that Sen. Judd Gregg cited concerns about the census in a press release announcing that he was withdrawing his nomination for secretary of commerce. But those reports ignored Gregg's subsequent statement during a press conference that the census was "not a major issue" in his decision to withdraw.
The Boston Globe and The Washington Post echoed the discredited accusation, advanced by conservative media figures, that Sen. Hillary Clinton did not condemn controversial comments by Suha Arafat during a 1999 trip to the West Bank, where Arafat, according to the Globe, "launched into an unscripted tirade accusing Israel of poisoning Palestinian children." In fact, Clinton reportedly "condemned Mrs. Arafat hours later, after receiving, she said, an official translation of her remarks."
The Washington Post uncritically reported Sen. John McCain's false claim that Sen. Barack Obama "would raise taxes." In fact, the Tax Policy Center concluded that, compared with McCain, "Obama would give larger tax cuts to low- and moderate-income households and pay some of the cost by raising taxes on high-income taxpayers" -- those households earning more than $250,000 per year.
On MSNBC, Norah O'Donnell aired a montage of what she described as "the multiple times that Barack Obama said 'John [McCain] is right' " during the first presidential debate. Following the montage, O'Donnell commented, "I thought this was a debate." In fact, in nearly all instances, Obama was actually criticizing McCain after first noting a point of agreement on the topic Obama was discussing.
Media outlets continue to report that Sen. Joe Biden was accused in 1987 of plagiarizing then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without noting that while Biden did paraphrase from a Kinnock speech without attribution on at least two occasions in August 1987, he had reportedly credited Kinnock when previously using the same language.
In articles on Sen. John McCain's reversal on offshore drilling, The New York Times reported that McCain "cast" his position "switch" as a "bold action in response to gasoline prices topping $4 a gallon," while The Washington Post suggested that McCain's position is a response "to ease the crunch for consumers." Neither article pointed out that the Department of Energy has determined that offshore drilling would not impact gas prices for many years.
In an article on the upcoming Virginia primary, The Washington Post included a quote from former Edwards campaign strategist Mudcat Saunders, saying that Sen. Hillary Clinton "might encounter difficulty connecting with southwest Virginians, who have been hit hard by plant closings," because "many people there blame the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993." But the Post did not note that Saunders has said a Hillary Clinton presidency would violate the Constitution and that he has vowed "to do everything I can to make sure" John Edwards does not endorse Clinton.
The Washington Post and the New York Post both baselessly asserted that Sen. Hillary Clinton referred to an emotional moment before last month's New Hampshire primary when she said during a February 4 visit to the Yale Child Study Center, "I said I would not tear up."
Articles in Newsweek and The Washington Post mischaracterized a remark by former President Bill Clinton, claiming that he appeared to dismiss Sen. Barack Obama's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." In fact, Clinton was referring to Obama's statements about his position on the Iraq war; he was not talking about the Obama campaign as the "biggest fairy tale." Further, the Newsweek article, as well as a New York Times article and a Washington Post op-ed, all truncated a comment by Hillary Clinton on the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, omitting a portion of her remarks in which she referred to President John F. Kennedy.