So, the Washington Post accepted David Weigel's resignation, apparently because he -- like every other reporter -- has personal views about some of the people he covers. From Post media critic Howard Kurtz's write-up of the resignation:
"Dave did excellent work for us," Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said. But, he said, "we can't have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There's abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody's viewpoint."
It probably won't come as much of a surprise that this is not a standard the Post consistently applies. (After all, Brauchli's statement that the Post cannot tolerate a perception of conflict appears in an article written by Howard Kurtz, whose dual roles as Washington Post media critic and highly-paid CNN anchor pose the greatest conflict of interest in all of journalism.)
Jonathan Schwartz reminds us that during a 1999 Democratic presidential primary debate, the media was actively rooting against Al Gore. Time's Eric Pooley has written that during the debate, the reporters in the press room responded to Gore "in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd." Jake Tapper has written that during the debate "there was hissing for Gore in the media room up at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore." And Howard Mortman said: "The media groaned, howled and laughed almost every time Al Gore said something."
Now, I don't know if Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly, whose snarky, error-filled and at times downright nasty coverage of Gore's presidential campaign has been extensively documented, was in the press room during that debate. I do know that her byline appears on a Washington Post article previewing the debate, with a New Hampshire dateline.
So, given that the Washington Post just got rid of David Weigel because his private criticism of conservatives like Pat Buchanan creates the "perception" that he "bring[s] a bias to [his] work," I can't help wondering: Was Ceci Connolly among those reporters who reportedly jeered and hissed Al Gore in 1999? Were any other Washington Post reporters?
From the May 30 edition of Fox's Fox News Sunday:
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Jonathan Cohn, whose coverage of health care for The New Republic has drawn frequent praise, offers the latest assessment of the media's coverage of the reform fight of the past year. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has provided a few such assessments, but his tend to consist of little more than mindless cheerleading for his colleagues that doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Cohen's take, on the other hand, deserves more attention.
Cohn, for example, seems to recognize one of the key characteristics that made his (and Ezra Klein's) health care reporting valuable:
I certainly spent far more time on the more mundane task of explanation-whether it was describing how a particular policy proposal might work or laying out the political dynamics of a particular moment. Occasionally this writing got a lot of attention, because it included a reporting tidbit that qualified as a scoop. More often, it didn't. But over time I came to realize that the mere sharing of information has enormous value-even to people in Washington who, you might suppose, already know what they need to know.
Indeed, one of the many lessons I learned over the last year is that, even at the very highest levels of power, people frequently operate with limited knowledge and perspective. That's true of how they think about policy and that's true of how they think about politics.
I've argued more times than I care to count that this is what the public (including "Washington Insiders" who, as Cohn notes, often know less than you, and they, would expect) needs from the media: Clear explanations of policy. It's such a basic thing, but one that is often lost amid paragraph after paragraph allegation and response and "analysis" of how things are likely to "play." We don't need to know that Senate Staffer X says Tax Provision Y will be a political albatross for Political Party Z -- we just need to know who the provision affects, why, and how.
There's real value in explanation -- far more, I would argue, than in simply reporting the day's latest developments and charges and counter-charges and speculation. And in repeated explanation -- it isn't enough to explain one time how Tax Provision Y will affect readers, while devoting dozens of articles to detailing claims and counter-claims about it. You can't expect readers or viewers to have seen that one explanation, or to remember and apply it to each time they hear Senate Staffer X make a claim about it. Telling the truth once isn't enough. Not if your goal is to give your readers and viewers the tools they need to make informed decisions.
So I'm thrilled that Cohn discusses the value of the "mundane task of explanation," and hope it catches on.
One of Cohn's central points about the media's coverage of health care is that the coverage "took place at internet speed" and was produced by a diverse array of news outlets -- and that, as a result, the media was able to expose falsehoods "just a little more quickly -- and, hopefully, a bit more effectively." Cohn offers an example:
Consider what happened in September, when the insurance industry released a study purporting to show that reform would cause insurance premiums to skyrocket. The Senate Finance Committee-the logjam in the legislative process-was set to vote on its bill in less than 48 hours. The study, commissioned by the insurance lobby and conducted by a private accounting firm, represented a clear effort to undermine support. It was the kind of move that lobbying groups make all the time-and, in the old days, it might have worked, since nobody would have seen through the study's tilted assumptions until, as with McCaughey's old article, the damage had been done. But within hours of its publication, several blogs, including this one, had published critiques showing just how flawed the study was. The critiques circulated in Washington and provoked a backlash against the insurers. Wavering Democrats said they were offended by the effort at political sabotage; the Finance Committee went on to pass the bill, as it had originally planned.
Cohn portrays the coverage of the insurance industry study as an example of how well the media did its job. But it is also a reminder of how badly the Washington Post (among others) failed its readers.
See, when the study came out, the Post's Ceci Connolly hyped the study without making any attempt to assess its validity -- even though by the time her article ran, Cohn had already noted that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were false.
The next day, Connolly wrote another article about the study -- an article that again failed to assess the study's credibility, failed to note the dubious track record of the firm that conducted it, and failed to explain the assumptions and limitations of the study. Her article even failed to mention that the accounting firm that conducted the study had already begun distancing itself from the way the insurance lobby was using it.
The day after that, yet another Connolly article focused on the insurance industry's attack on health care reform. Finally, in the 19th paragraph of that article, Connolly got around to mentioning that the accounting firm was distancing itself from the study -- but she still couldn't bring herself to mention that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were unlikely to come true.
Six days later, the Washington Post gave an insurance industry executive op-ed space to defend the study and decry the "relentless public relations campaign" against it.
Cohn is right that the bogus study was less damaging than it could have been had it not been swiftly debunked -- and that the people who did the debunking deserve praise. But it was also more damaging than it should have been, in no small part because of the absolutely dreadful job the Washington Post did of covering it.
And that's ultimately what any assessment of the media's coverage of health care reform comes down to: Compared to what? To coverage of similar efforts in the past? To how badly they could have done things? Compared to how well they can reasonably be expected to do? Compared to a platonic ideal of flawless coverage?
My own view is that the media's coverage of health care reform was much better than it could have been (explanatory journalism like that provided by Cohn and Klein being a key reason) and much worse than it should have been, and that there are lessons to be learned from both the success and the failures.
Media failures mentioned in Howard Kurtz's look back at the Aughts:
Jon and Kate, Octomom and Balloon Boy
The failure to challenge the Bush administration's case for invading Iraq
the press fell way short on the housing and lending bubble that nearly sank our economy in 2008
the breathtaking fabrications of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today
Rather's reliance on suspect documents in challenging Bush's National Guard service
the media mainstream played a central role in fostering sky-high expectations for Obama, which, inevitably, crashed into the messy reality of governing.
old-line organizations more frequently chase tabloid melodramas
Cable television and morning shows breathlessly pursue narratives involving missing white women, a runaway bride, a mom with octuplets, a beauty queen who opposes gay marriage
the media mobs over Paris Hilton's brief jail term
a mind-set that breathes life into celebrity deaths -- such as the two-week frenzy over Michael Jackson's -- and gorges on misbehavior by the likes of David Letterman and Tiger Woods. (Imagine if all the reporters chasing Woods's many mistresses had been assigned to study whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.)
Media failings not mentioned in Howard Kurtz's look back at the Aughts: Coverage of the 2000 election, in which news organizations like Kurtz's own Washington Post lied about Al Gore in order to portray him as a liar, ignored new evidence that George W. Bush may have made his fortune by engaging in illegal insider trading, and generally did everything they could to hand the presidency to someone who is now generally regarded as having been a horrible president.
Not to defend the things Kurtz did list -- I've written about the tabloidization of the news media many times, and it's safe to say I'm generally less fond of it than Kurtz, who is a frequent participant in it -- but most of them pale in comparison to what happened in 2000.
Howard Kurtz thinks Jack Kelley's fabrications damaged the media's credibility? How many people have the foggiest idea who Jack Kelley is, or ever heard of his fabrications? He thinks Jack Kelley's fabrications are important enough to merit inclusion in a look back at the decade? Nonsense. Ceci Connolly's fabrications, on the other hand, helped decide a presidential election in favor of a disastrously incapable liar. But Connolly -- Kurtz's Washington Post colleague -- escapes mention, as does the dishonest media-wide assault on Gore that she helped lead.
Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, in an online Q&A today:
First, there were no salon dinners. They were planned and they were canceled. Second, Ceci Connolly, who is an absolutely first-rate, independent-minded reporter, was simply asked who might be worth inviting to a roundtable discussion on healthcare. There is no reason she should be taken off of this story. Third, while we appreciate your visiting with us on this chat, you should read what we write. We have scrutinized the insurance industry's claims about healthcare legislation extensively, including in a lengthy piece last week by Alec MacGillis. Finally, yes, I realize that the salon dinner episode was embarrassing and damaging to our credibility, but I would say to you: judge us by our journalism.
If you're a Washington Post editor, you should really avoid using the phrase "judge us by our journalism" in the same paragraph in which you praise Ceci Connolly.
Nor was it "first-rate" when Connolly promoted right-wing myths about end-of-life counseling.
Nor was it "first-rate" journalism when Connolly wrote three straight articles about the recent insurance industry-funded health care "study" without ever getting around to pointing out the study's key flaws.
Another day, another Washington Post article by Ceci Connolly about the insurance industry's attack on health care reform. This time, Connolly does make passing mention of one of the significant flaws in the industry-commissioned "report" that Connolly has now written three articles about. Buried in the 19th paragraph, Connolly notes:
As the report has come under fire, PricewaterhouseCoopers has distanced itself somewhat from it. The firm said Monday that AHIP had instructed it to focus on only some features of the bill, while not taking into account other major features such as the effect of subsidies for those buying insurance.
But still no mention of the fact that the report was based on assumptions PricewaterhouseCoopers acknowledged are unlikely to come true.
Maybe if Connolly writes three more articles, she'll get around to mentioning that.
Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a front-page article by Ceci Connolly hyping an insurance industry attack on health care reform. Connolly and the Post didn't mention glaring flaws with the industry-funded study that claims reform would result in a $4,000 increase in insurance premiums. Flaws like the fact that the study was based on assumptions it admits are unlikely to actually come true:
"We have estimated the potential impact of the tax on premiums. Although we expect employers to respond to the tax by restructuring their benefits to avoid it, we demonstrate the impact assuming it is applied."
Got that? The study demonstrates the impact of something they don't expect to happen. The Post didn't mention that, though The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn had pointed it out the night before. Nor did the Post mention that the PricewaterhouseCooper, the firm that conducted the "study" for the insurance industry, conducted bogus studies for the tobacco industry in the 1990s. Those are two rather glaring reasons why the current study shouldn't be taken seriously -- but Connolly and the Post stayed silent about both, offering readers no reason to be suspicious of the study other than the predictable disagreements from reform advocates.
Well, today, Connolly is back, with an article all about the insurance industry study. Maybe today she gets around to exposing some of its flaws? Nope. It's all he-said/she-said, with no independent analysis, no discussion of the flawed track record of the firm that conducted the study, no explanation of the assumptions and limitations of the study.
The study, and the way the insurance industry is using it, is so misleading PricewaterhouseCooper -- which conducted the study -- released a statement last night emphasizing that "the report itself acknowledges, other provisions that are part of health reform proposals were not included in the PwC analysis." That's right: PwC released a statement last night distancing itself from the way its own study is being used, and pointing out that their study is not a comprehensive look at health care reform proposals but rather a narrow assessment of "four components" of the Senate Finance bill that ignored "other provisions" in it.
And yet Ceci Connolly didn't mention that in today's Washington Post article. Connolly covers health care reform full-time. That's her beat. And she's now written a second article in two days about an insurance industry funded report that is so flawed even the firm that prepared the report -- a firm with a spotty history on these matters -- is distancing itself from the industry's conclusions. And yet neither of her articles has contained a word about any of this. Neither has given readers so much as a hint of any of these flaws -- the nonsensical assumptions, the narrow focus, the firm's track record.
What is the point of having a reporter assigned full-time to the health care reform beat if she is incapable or unwilling to give readers that kind of information? Anyone can type up some quotes from the insurance industry, type up a response from the White House, and call it a day. What, exactly, does Ceci Connolly bring to the table?
The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly "reports" on the insurance industry's assault on health care reform:
After months of collaboration on President Obama's attempt to overhaul the nation's health-care system, the insurance industry plans to strike out against the effort on Monday with a report warning that the typical family premium in 2019 could cost $4,000 more than projected.
Industry officials said they intend to circulate the report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers on Capitol Hill and promote it in new advertisements. That could complicate Democratic hopes for action on the legislation this week.
Though open to dispute, the analysis is certain to raise questions about whether Obama can deliver on his twin promises of extending coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while also curbing skyrocketing health-care costs.
Connolly then quoted from the report, and quoted an insurance industry spokeswoman. Eventually, near the end of the article, Connolly finally got around to including some disagreements with the study's conclusions. But she didn't make any attempt to answer for readers a rather basic question: Is the insurance industry study correct?
Nor did she spend any time at all putting PricewaterhouseCoopers' involvement in context. It seems like they're a neutral, credible source, right? But as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein explains elsewhere, the firm's track record isn't particularly good:
The report was farmed out to the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has something of a history with this sort of thing: In the early-'90s, the tobacco industry commissioned PWC to estimate the economic devastation that would result from a tax on tobacco. The report was later analyzed by the Arthur Andersen Economic Consulting group, which concluded that "the cumulative effect of PW's methods ... is to produce patently unreliable results." It's perhaps no surprise that the patently unreliable results were all in the tobacco industry's favor.
That seems like some useful context that could have helped Connolly's readers, doesn't it? Klein goes on to point out glaring flaws in the insurance industry study -- flaws that are nowhere to be found in Connolly's article. Instead, Connolly leads with the alarming conclusion that the "typical family" could pay $4,000 more for health care -- and makes no attempt to assess the validity of that claim. She doesn't even explain what "typical family" means.
Could someone explain to me why Connolly's write-up is on the front page of the Washington Post, and Klein's is on a blog on the Post's web page?
UPDATE: TNR's Jonathan Cohn posted at 10:56 last night an assessment of the study that noted it makes a series of "strange assumptions" that calls its conclusions into question. Like this one, which Cohn quotes directly: "We have estimated the potential impact of the tax on premiums. Although we expect employers to respond to the tax by restructuring their benefits to avoid it, we demonstrate the impact assuming it is applied."
So the insurance industry study is based on assumptions it believes are false. That's a pretty damning piece of information, isn't it? Jonathan Cohn posted it online last night -- but Ceci Connolly couldn't be bothered to include it in her write-up of the insurance industry's attack for today's Washington Post.
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.
Howard Kurtz is bewildered that people believe falsehoods about health care reform, despite the fact that news organizations like the Washington Post have debunked them:
In the 10 days after Palin warned on Facebook of an America "in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel,' " The Washington Post mentioned the phrase 18 times, the New York Times 16 times, and network and cable news at least 154 times (many daytime news shows are not transcribed).
While there is legitimate debate about the legislation's funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions, the former Alaska governor's claim that government panels would make euthanasia decisions was clearly debunked. Yet an NBC poll last week found that 45 percent of those surveyed believe the measure would allow the government to make decisions about cutting off care to the elderly -- a figure that rose to 75 percent among Fox News viewers.
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."
Ok, let's take a look at that Connolly article:
Conservative talk-radio shows have raised the prospect of euthanasia based on a provision to reimburse doctors through Medicare for counseling sessions about end-of-life directives.
And comments posted on former Alaska Republican governor Sarah Palin's Facebook page Friday said that people would 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."
There are no such "death panels" mentioned in any of the House bills.
That is not a particularly effective debunking, for several reasons, including:
1) Connolly repeats the false claims for two paragraphs before indicating their falsity.
2) Connolly doesn't explain their falsity in any way -- doesn't explain that the counseling sessions are optional, or that they would not impose outcomes on patients, doesn't indicate that the falsehood comes from people who have a pattern of lying about health care. Connolly's debunking comes down to "Trust me, not Sarah Palin or talk show hosts." Obviously, many of Connolly's conservative readers are unlikely to do so.
3) Connolly's debunking sentence appears narrowly crafted: It can be read to apply only to the phrase "death panels," not to the euthanasia in the first paragraph, and it refers specifically to the "House bills," rather than making clear that nobody is proposing anything like Death Panels.
4) Connolly's article privileges the lie.
If this is what Kurtz holds up as a shining example of the media debunking the false claims, it isn't at all difficult to see why so many people believe them.
Meanwhile, Kurtz has finally discovered the fact that television has done a lousy job of covering the substance of health care reform:
The eruption of anger at town-hall meetings on health care, while real and palpable, became an endless loop on television. The louder the voices, the fiercer the confrontation, the more it became video wallpaper, obscuring the substantive arguments in favor of what producers love most: conflict.
From Ceci Connolly's August 1 Washington Post article, Talk Radio Campaign Frightening Seniors:
A campaign on conservative talk radio, fueled by President Obama's calls to control exorbitant medical bills, has sparked fear among senior citizens that the health-care bill moving through Congress will lead to end-of-life "rationing" and even "euthanasia."
The controversy stems from a proposal to pay physicians who counsel elderly or terminally ill patients about what medical interventions they would prefer near the end of life and how to prepare instructions such as living wills. Under the plan, Medicare would reimburse doctors for one session every five years to confer with a patient about his or her wishes and how to ensure those preferences are followed. The counseling sessions would be voluntary.
But on right-leaning radio programs, religious e-mail lists and Internet blogs, the proposal has been described as "guiding you in how to die," "an ORDER from the Government to end your life," promoting "death care" and, in the words of antiabortion leader Randall Terry, an attempt to "kill Granny."
The attacks on talk radio began when Betsy McCaughey, who helped defeat President Bill Clinton's health-care overhaul 16 years ago, told former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) that mandatory counseling sessions with Medicare beneficiaries would "tell them how to end their life sooner" and would teach the elderly how to "decline nutrition . . . and cut your life short."
A Washington Post article about President Obama's AARP forum on health care promoted the falsehood that a provision in the House Democrats' health care reform bill makes end-of-life counseling for seniors mandatory -- it does not. Ceci Connolly wrote that "[o]ne woman asked Obama about 'rumors' that under the proposed legislation, every American over age 65 would be visited by a government worker and 'told to decide how they wish to die,' " but Connolly did not report that the "rumors" -- which have been promoted by conservatives -- are not true.
Media outlets have advanced the claim that a public plan option is too far out of the mainstream for the Senate to pass by reporting as fact that health care reform legislation would require 60 votes to pass. In fact, the Senate leadership could add health care reform to the budget reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority to pass.
Ceci Connolly wrote that "in an interview," Change Congress' Adam Green "was hard-pressed to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan." But Green says that he was answering a completely different question.
Connolly then asked me why progressives were picking a political fight on the public option, as opposed to another issue. I guess the fact that it's the #1 domestic issue of the day -- one that affects millions of American families -- wasn't explanation enough.
I figured she was looking for a quote summarizing the political stakes, so I though for a moment and said, "The public option has become a proxy for the question of whether Democrats will stand on principle and represent their constituents."
I was quite proud of that answer. It summarizes what a lot of people are feeling -- the public option is the "line in the sand" issue for Democrats, something Chris has written about here on OpenLeft several times.
Connolly's take on that quote:
Green, in an interview, was hard-pressed to articulate a substantive argument for the public plan but said that it "has become a proxy for the question of Democrats who stand on principle and represent their constituents."
WHAT? Connolly asked me a question on the politics, and when I gave her an answer on that, she said I didn't answer on the substance? Did I mention Ceci Connolly is a r-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s reporter?
FLASHBACK: In December 1 and December 2, 1999, Post articles, Connolly misquoted then-Vice President Al Gore, falsely claiming that he said he had discovered the Love Canal disaster. On February 17, 2000, Slate.com editor-at-large Jack Shafer wrote that New York Times reporter Katharine Q. "Kit" Seelye and Connolly were responsible for creating the false Love Canal story: "[I]t's Seelye's fault -- and the Washington Post's Ceci Connolly's -- that folks think Gore claimed credit for Love Canal in the first place. Which he didn't" [emphasis in original].