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?
Washington Post reporter Michael Shear explains his paper's wall-to-wall coverage of Sarah Palin's new book:
Why do we spend so much time on Palin? And is it too much? Perhaps. There's a danger that we are overdoing it -- four stories in today's paper may have reached that point. On the other hand, there seems to be an insatiable demand from our audience -- liberals and conservatives -- and at the end of the day we have to, and should, respond to that.
Really? There's an "insatiable demand" from Washington Post readers for coverage of Sarah Palin's book? How does the Post know this? The book just came out -- has the paper's switchboard been flooded with demands that for all-Going-Rogue, all the time? Are Post editors getting angry emails insisting that three articles in one day's paper just won't do -- a fourth is absolutely necessary, though still not sufficient?
I doubt that very much.
I don't mean to single Shear out here. You see this kind of thing all the time -- reporters justifying something they can't justify on the merits by asserting public demand they can't (or won't) quantify.
Like when Howard Kurtz defended obsessive cable news coverage of a balloon that was not carrying a little boy by writing "The ratings, forgive me, must have soared." Must have? Well ... Did they? Or when Politico's Mike Allen asserted that "Fox executives are relishing" their recent fight with the White House because "ratings at Fox are through the roof" -- without actually providing the ratings to back up that claim. As Eric Boehlert has explained in detail, Fox's ratings spike is a myth.
It's bad enough when journalists suggest that the news media should simply report what the public to see. That isn't journalism -- and if we go too far down that road, it won't be long before NBC Nightly News consists of nothing more than cat videos and B-list celebrity sex tapes. But it's even more frustrating when they make decisions about what to cover based on baseless assumptions about what the public wants.
For years, local news producers have led their stations in a race to the bottom, driven by the prevailing belief that "eyeball grabbers" and "soft news" are the only hope for local news in an era of declining TV audiences.
But a 2004 study* argues that they might want to rethink their approach. In "The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?" political science professors Todd L. Belt and Marion Just conclude that sensationalistic news does not lead to sensational ratings.
Belt, assistant professor at the University of Hawai'i, Hilo, and Just, a professor at Wellesley College and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, argue that the prevailing worldview in the nation's newsrooms has it all backward: Good, solid journalism, not tawdry, tabloid-style content, keeps viewers tuned to their TVs.
What Belt and Just found certainly goes against industry conventional wisdom.
"The data show quality journalism produces commercial success," they write. Newscasts that posted high scores on the quality index nabbed higher ratings than their mediocre counterparts. The finding held true for both the early and late evening news time slots. It also held for lead stories, suggesting that the old TV news mantra - "If it bleeds, it leads" - might be in need of revision.
Although local news viewership as a whole fell during the period covered by the study - 1998 to 2002 - the data nonetheless show that those stations that produced high-quality newscasts did better in hanging on to their audience.
In an article about the Chamber of Commerce shopping around for an economist willing to put his or her name on a study touting the Chamber's predetermined conclusions about health care reform, the Washington Post engages in a nifty bit of false equivalence:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of national business groups opposed to President Obama's health-care reform effort are collecting money to finance an economic study that could be used to portray the legislation as a job killer and threat to the nation's economy, according to an e-mail solicitation from a top Chamber official.
The proposed economic study by the Chamber is the latest example of attempts by advocates and opponents of health-care reform to influence the debate with economic studies whose authenticity is later questioned by their adversaries.
In mid-October, just as the Senate Finance Committee was drafting the final wording of its health bill, the insurance industry released a study suggesting that the bill would dramatically increase the cost of insurance in the country.
The White House and reform advocates pushed back hard, arguing that the study by America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) was a self-serving document that did not consider all of the relevant information in the legislation.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm retained by AHIP, later said it had not considered some parts of the health-reform proposals that might affect the cost of insurance on households.
The Post suggested both "advocates and opponents of health-care reform" are equally guilty of trying to influence the debate with dubious studies -- but couldn't come up with a comparable example of reform advocates doing so. Or even an incomparable example.
That AHIP study, for example, got a great deal of largely uncritical coverage from the Washington Post. And long after it was clear that the study was bunk, the Post granted AHIP's president a coveted slot on its op-ed page to tout the study.
So ... where's the example of a similarly-flawed study supporting reform that got as much attention from news organizations like the Washington Post?
The Washington Post's Michael Shear over-reads last weeks elections:
If he [President Obama] needed any reminder of how difficult that remains, the week began with a blunt message for his party from voters, who resoundingly rejected two Democratic candidates for governor and sent a shock through members of Congress who are up for reelection next year.
Senior Obama aides sought to minimize the power of that message but were largely out-shouted by a chorus of pundits and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill who warned that the results do not portend good things for Obama and his party next year.
Exit polls showing that people who voted in last week's elections generally did not consider them to be referendums on Obama? Not mentioned.
The Democrats' 2-0 record in last week's Congressional special elections? Not mentioned.
A Washington Post article reported that "Republicans have seized on the AIG issue in the belief that it has the potential to link Obama more closely to the widely unpopular $700 billion bailout legislation for the financial sector -- legislation that was crafted in the Bush administration." But the article did not note that a Bush-appointed special inspector general for TARP stated in congressional testimony that the Bush administration Treasury Department knew about the AIG bonus contracts and did not insist on their abrogation as a condition of AIG's receiving bailout money.
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.
In two separate items, The Washington Post reported John McCain's accusation in the October 15 presidential debate that Sen. Barack Obama failed to repudiate comments by Rep. John Lewis without noting that Obama responded by pointing out that his campaign did, in fact, issue a statement saying that Lewis' invocation of George Wallace in criticizing the McCain-Palin ticket was not appropriate.
The Washington Post uncritically quoted Sen. John McCain's claim during the final presidential debate that Sen. Joe Biden had "this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries." In fact, Biden introduced a plan to "[m]aintain a unified Iraq by decentralizing it and giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis breathing room in their own regions."
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.
In an article on Sen. John McCain's proposed plan to balance the budget by 2013, The Washington Post's Michael Shear reported that "Democrats immediately criticized McCain, asserting that his promise is unrealistic, given his stated goals of tax cuts and other government spending." In fact, several economists and nonpartisan analysts have also criticized McCain's plan, reportedly saying that McCain's proposal for numerous tax cuts would bloat the deficit or require huge spending cuts.
In an article about a Vets for Freedom (VFF) television ad, The Washington Post reported that VFF chairman Pete Hegseth denied that his organization is operating on behalf of Sen. John McCain, but "conceded that the message in the ad is almost identical to McCain's on the stump." Similarly, the Associated Press reported that McCain "is getting ... help from" the VFF television ad campaign. But neither the Post nor the AP mentioned that Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman -- McCain supporters and frequent campaign surrogates -- had served on the VFF Policy Board of Advisors.
In an online chat, The Washington Post's Michael D. Shear asserted, "McCain rarely talks about his time as a POW (though others sometimes do on his behalf.)" In fact, McCain has repeatedly highlighted his experience as a POW, even as he and the media have promoted the notion that he is reluctant to do so.
Several media reports falsely claimed that Wesley Clark criticized Sen. John McCain's military service during a June 29 appearance on CBS' Face the Nation, including CNN anchor John Roberts, who said that "Clark took a weekend hit at McCain, targeting his history as a war hero and his possible future as president." In fact, Clark praised McCain as "a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the Armed Forces as a prisoner of war."
In reporting on Sen. John McCain's efforts to woo Hispanic voters, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Politico, and Reuters mentioned McCain's previous support for comprehensive immigration reform but did not note that he has since said he would no longer support a comprehensive reform measure he co-sponsored.
The Washington Post's Michael Shear falsely suggested that Sen. Barack Obama has changed his position on U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq since September 2007, writing that when Obama was "[a]sked to make a withdrawal timeline pledge during a debate last September," he "declined, saying that 'it's hard to project four years from now,' " but that Obama now says "he will remove all combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of becoming president and will leave 'some troops' in Iraq to protect U.S. embassy personnel there and carry out targeted strikes on terrorists." But contrary to Shear's suggestion, Obama did not make contradictory statements.