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More on Reporting the Lies

One more thing that needs to be said on the media's role in health-care misinformation: This is not the fault of any -- or at least most -- individual reporters. Journalists hear this sort of criticism and, quite rightly, get their back up. After all, they don't tell lies. They often call out falsehoods. They write lots of good stories. Anyone reading them would be better informed for their troubles.

The problem isn't in the particulars. It's in the profession. Namely, it's in the competitive pressures to drift toward sensationalism and hot stories. A smear like "death panels" emerges and catches fire because it's fundamentally interesting. You could write a great thriller, or film a poignant drama, about death panels. Not so about health insurance exchanges. That said, the New York Times would probably never mention the lie if given the opportunity. But after it hits talk radio and explodes onto cable news and rips through the blogosphere, it stops being a lie and begins being a story. And though you can refuse to cover a lie, you can't refuse to cover a story. Nor is it even obvious you should. After all, if you don't correct the record, who will?

The problem is that "The Media" is a big beast with a lot of component parts. Some of those parts are respectable and sober. Others aren't. But if the legs run somewhere, the head follows whether it wants to or not. That would be fine if the head commanded the legs. But it's generally the other way around.

The central conflict of interest in the media is that the same institution that's supposed to follow the conversation is also responsible for creating the conversation. That contradiction can be elided so long as everyone in the game is playing by the same rules. And for a brief period, when the "objective" institutions were the only major outlets, that worked out fine.

But with the rise of partisan and sensationalizing mediums like talk radio and cable news and the blogosphere, half of the outlets are now consciously creating the conversation that the other half are following. But the objective institutions haven't responded to this in any obvious way. They just get caught following a manipulated conversation, and so being part of the manipulation, part of the machine that focuses on cynical lies like the death panels rather than policy specifics like the exchanges. That's not the fault of an individual reporter, though. It's structural, and it requires a structural response.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 24, 2009; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

"That's not the fault of an individual reporter, though. It's structural, and it requires a structural response."

Since Neurenberg, 'I was just following orders' is supposed to be a war crime (except that in reality it is now accepted wisdom).

No body makes a reporter repeat lies without the facts that show differently. Or they shouldn't, anyway.

This is journalistic laziness, at best. IMO, it is malpractice, but it is rewarded with even greater exposure for the malpractice.

You mean you don't smell the furnaces cremating the remains? Or the trains that arrive full of people and leave empty?

Ezra, this is the most shameful thing I've seen you write in years of reading your words.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 24, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

If individual reporters stopped endlessly extending credit to proven liars, particularly when those liars are used because they're reliable quotemills and story-padders, that would be a start.

That's presumably in their capacity. Unless their editors tell them that liars and BS artists must be given a platform. In which case, they really ought to quit. (I can just about cope with the clueless and ignorant getting one -- see Michael Steele in, oh, the Washington Post -- though that's borderline.)

It might also be worth having the supposedly objective institutions acknowledge that outlets calling themselves news are not necessarily journalistic entities, and should be treated as such. This already happens, implicitly: the National Inquirer doesn't have the same institutional credibility as Rush Limbaugh, though it probably has a better signal/noise ratio.

The house style of omniscient narrator apparently doesn't allow that.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 24, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me the rightwing-nuts always start these whoppers and not just about health insurance reform. Wasn't it Adlai Stevenson who said the Democrats would stop telling the truth about Republicans if they would stop lying about the Democrats?

Posted by: par4 | August 24, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

When a "story" emerging from partisan news sources is, objectively speaking, clearly unsupported by the facts (i.e. a lie), then it seems to me that the job of the mainstream media is to forthwith report that a falsehood is being propagated by one side or the other, and not to give it equal weight and credibility.

That would help shape the narrative and provide a service to consumers about whom to trust in the debate.

Posted by: t_seltzer | August 24, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

We need a robust not-for-profit (i.e. 501c3) news service. Otherwise the news will continue to go towards entertainment as opposed to information.

Posted by: wwsnyc | August 24, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

The public should expect, at minimum, the basic facts of health-care in this country and we are not getting it from reporters except in rare instances. The tendency here is to think that we have to re-invent the wheel and that it has to be square.

Front and center should be figures like percentage of GDP vs coverage vs results. It would be nice if reporters had the courage to state clearly that our figures are wildly out of line with the rest of the world. Reporters also should point out the reasons why those figures are so out of line, i.e., the rapaciousness of the medical industry particularly the insurance companies and big pharma. Not bringing up the essential facts is like trying to chart a course to the Moon without understanding gravitation.

Posted by: cstahnke | August 24, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

We need a robust not-for-profit (i.e. 501c3) news service. Otherwise the news will continue to go towards entertainment as opposed to information.

Posted by: wwsnyc | August 24, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse


we have one. check out cspan.org

as far as sites that offer unfiltered news, check out ap.org, reuters.com and I'm sure several others. Most outside of that will give a spin either left or right to either a slight extent or a large extent.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 24, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Politicians are the biggest liars on Earth yet many who post here (including Ezra) seem to accept what they say as the Gospel truth. Obama says there won't be cuts to Medicare benefits yet many Americans don't believe him. Could it be his words which are causing the disbelief?

Obama has the following Politifact stats:

True – 59
Mostly True – 41
Half True – 41
Barely True – 23
False – 31
Pants on Fire – 3

More than half the time he is telling “half true”, “barely true”, “false” and “pants on fire.” We have a name for people like this…liar.

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/personalities/barack-obama/

If George W Bush or a Fortune 500 CEO had a record like this would anyone here be giving him the benefit of the doubt?

Posted by: kingstu01 | August 24, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't think AP and Reuters have been doing any better of a job than anyone else (for example, this from AP: http://mediamatters.org/research/200908180032).

There's plenty of blame to go around.

Posted by: bean3 | August 24, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

kingstu01,

I would be surprised if W. told the full truth 59 times on any issue. Of course intention is part of any lie. I'm sure many of W.'s comments were simply ill-informed.

More to the point, the Politifact statement is not a percentage based measure. It doesn't weight the claims either (e.g. are the false claims central to his argument, or are they ancillary points). The GOP numbers at the present time aren't exactly anything to hold your hat onto either.

Another way to read the Politifact analysis is that Obama speaks the truth more often than not. Even when he spins his statements tend to contain more truth than falsehood.

In reference to this larger issue of TV and cable coverage of this issue; part of the debate framing in itself contains a subtle bias. For example, I remember a Sunday morning talk show a few weeks back where Kent Conrad represented the Democratic view conta a GOP member. On the one hand, a person might say that Conrad is a key figure in the debate because he sits on the Finance Committee and is a member of the "Group of less than 3 percent of the electorate".

What you don't have are strong proponents of reform like a Bernie Sanders or Russ Feingold arguing the merits of health reform.

The net result is a partial picture involving two opponents of reform. It's a bit of a joke that even the audiences of those shows might not get (e.g. because while those viewers represent a plugged in part of the electorate; I suspect the audience is not plugged in at the kind of level that's necessary to understand some of the internal dynamics at work in the Senate -- unless they understand the broader context, they won't even realize how the coverage itself represents only one part of the debate).

Posted by: JPRS | August 24, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, if you and the left want "competition" why not allow any insurance company (with a minimum AM Best rating) to sell insurance across state lines. Krugman seems to only want “competition” if the government is running the Public Option. How about you?

Posted by: kingstu01 | August 24, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

bean3,

yes but i think what reuters and ap.com do is they just give you the news and let you decide.

I think its hysterical that fox news' woman that's on at 10 pm EST (i forget her name) has that as her tagline. "We Report, You Decide". That's like saying the HuffPost isn't biased towards the far left.

As compared to those two AP and Reuters are the Switzerland of fair and unbiased journalism.

Without kissing up I like the WAPO because you have points of view from both sides of the arguments.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 24, 2009 4:27 PM | Report abuse


I've noticed that sensationalism is trumping ideology for the 24hr news networks and even MSNBC didn't bother with nuance and kept interrupting Sen. Claire McCaskill's town hall (during the middle of the day, so not prime time mind you) with superficial analysis and would promptly cut over whenever there might be some shouting. No one was showing the town halls in their entirety. The town hall I went to had a local public health professor give a 45 minute presentation on HR3200 that was certainly more newsworthy than whatever was on any of the 24hr networks at the time (or CSPAN, for that matter) and no one was airing it.

What's wrong with a 24 hour network giving a full two hours to an actual news story that's got lots of national interest?

Posted by: ThomasEN | August 24, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

ThomasEN,

actually cnn.com/live has been showing some of the town halls in their entirety unfiltered although their reports definitely have a right or left viewpoint depending on who you ask.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 24, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Are we supposed to believe death panels will not exist simply because the bodies which will make precisely the decisions associated with death panels are going to be called something else?

The problem is not that they won't be called "death panels." The problem is that there will have to be something like death panels to make those decisions. I know -- let's call them "Nice" panels -- oh, wait, that one's already taken...

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 24, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

And in a discussion about proven liars, the galtroid shows up. Thanks for making the point for us.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 24, 2009 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Re: whoisjohngaltcom | August 24, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abus
wrote..............
Are we supposed to believe death panels will not exist simply because the bodies which will make precisely the decisions associated with death panels are going to be called something else?
.............. end wrote....


The above is incredibly sad. Here someone is posting on one of the sanest blogs on health care reform and yet can't be bothered to even keep up with current message from their echo chamber--- let alone any resemblance to the truth.

Even death panel Betsy when questioned on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart admitted there were no death panels anywhere in HR3200.

As for concerns about euthanasia and especially rationing care for the weakest and oldest---this administration is one you should applaud. After all, it has the deadly doctor Emanuel, who despite the lies and distortions is a firm opponent of mercy killings and euthanasia.

So please, spend the time to work through this blog and then ask yourself what's real and what's not.


Posted by: shelgreen | August 24, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Actually I'd say it's a hell of a lot simpler than any of that Ezra; if the media, any aspect of it, is going to report the lie, they ought to *report the lie*! That is, the headline shouldn't be "Sarah Palin says healthcare bill to establish death panels," it should be "Sarah Palin lies about healthcare reform bill." That's the problem, that the media reports on the lie without clearly identifying that it's a lie. And continue to extend deference to the liars.

Posted by: BrienJackson | August 24, 2009 6:37 PM | Report abuse

"So please, spend the time to work through this blog and then ask yourself what's real and what's not."

From Ezra's interview with Zeke himself:
"We have a lot of unnecessary care."

The doctors who perform that care don't think it's unnecessary. And God knows that if the insurance companies who pay for that care thought it was unnecessary -- or not at least potentially helpful -- they wouldn't approve it.

More Zeke:
"The big issue here is how to redesign the health-care delivery system so we're doing the appropriate data-driven care that we know will improve someone's life and not doing unnecessary, and potentially harmful, care."

Those people who would determine "necessity" -- what do you call them?

Because they're called the death panel if you've got cancer and your doctor wants to try something -- something that your current insurance company would pay for because it *might* help, but which the panel will declare "unnecessary" because statistically it's not worth the money.

That's rationing. By death panels. But you libs go ahead and call it whatever you like. Call it "tissue." Or call it a "lockbox." Call it whatever you need to make yourselves feel better about what it is that you really seek.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 24, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

Technically it's understood to be a LIVING WILL.

i.e. A person has the voluntary option to consult with a doctor about end of life decisions.

My grandma who has metastatic breast cancer right now is living proof of the importance of doing this. She has talked these issues through with the family and we have a sense about what is coming. She has had time to prepare herself and she is going out the way she wants to go out.

The idea that LIVING WILLS are called "Death Panels" is something right out of Nazi propaganda. This may seem somewhat hyperbolic to people who haven't studied history, but the "Death Panels" term sounds just like a term that might be concocted by some Ministry of "Truth".

As far as rationing goes, we have rationing already. We ration by cost. We ration access based on pre-existing conditions. In the private market there are price caps and other kinds of restriction on care. If a person has no insurance, they are effectively have the decisions made for them. For people under 65, we probably have the more health care rationing than any health care system in the world.

That's part of what makes this current debate so bizarre.

Of course, the equally sad reality is that opponents of reform will be just as happy to argue the virtues of rationing if it's done by some adjuster with a private insurance firm -- even if the person has no medical training whatsoever.

Posted by: JPRS | August 24, 2009 8:44 PM | Report abuse

I think BrienJackson summed it up perfectly - the headline should state the liar name's instead of the lie.

Make anyone who is very interested read the story to get to the falsehood which is attempting to be propagated.

Posted by: t_seltzer | August 24, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Here is Ezra Klein on the coverage of single payer over the last few years:

"I've been attending health-care panels and events on a pretty regular basis for four or five years now. Each event, of course, is its own precious snowflake, with its own set of graphs and bullet points and dweebish jokes. But one thing is perfectly predictable: The Q&A session will be dominated by single-payer activists asking about HR 676.

There's not a mystery as to why this happens: Single-payer activists are very well organized, and they make a point to dispatch their people to these events and get their members to the microphone and ensure that their perspective is heard. But as the bills under consideration suggest, politicians have had no problem ignoring the single-payer grassroots. Max Baucus ruled out their participation on day one. The media hasn't shown the slightest inclination to cover their presence at event after event after event."

Who gets the blame for that?

Here's a specific example of reporter malpractice. Ceci Connolly and Shailagh Murray wrote a piece on Max Baucus that frankly sounded more like PR than reporting. They said he had invited all players to the table a few days after he had eight distinguished health experts arrested for daring to speak out. They somehow forgot to talk of his contributions from the health industry or how he hid from single payer advocates on one of his visits to the headquaters of an insurance company (United HealthCare?).

Healh Care "reform" is a triumph for special interests and the media bears a good part of the blame.

Posted by: lensch | August 24, 2009 11:04 PM | Report abuse

Great post. I do think reporters deserve a bit more of the blame, though. Their journalistic methods are easily manipulable, and journalists could make reasonable methodological modifications to stop this.

1. They shouldn't get so worried about stenography of lies.
2. If they do repeat a falsehood, they need to say it clearly; preferably in the title.
3. A powerful tool to identify manipulation, is deviation from neutral tone.

My best example of this sort of reporting is Gawker Media. They are often obnoxious and offensive, but this is largely because they are unafraid to call a rose, a rose and mercilessly mock people who try to feed them BS P.R. statements. But they also get the information across. It is a win-win.

An example you say? This was top story at valleywag at the time of this post:
http://valleywag.gawker.com/5344686/flickr-shuts-down-discussions-about-flickr-constantly-shutting-things-down

Posted by: zosima | August 25, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

@kingstu01:

George W. Bush actually has a record of 100% false on Politifact. Ouch!

Posted by: zosima | August 25, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

"Because they're called the death panel if you've got cancer and your doctor wants to try something -- something that your current insurance company would pay for because it *might* help..."

er...check your presumptions!

so-called "experimental" stuff is exactly excluded by much or most private insurance.

Posted by: HalHorvath | August 25, 2009 12:08 AM | Report abuse

HalHorvath:
"so-called "experimental" stuff is exactly excluded by much or most private insurance."

That may be true, but at least patients can drag private insurers before the government to challenge those exclusions -- a government that's NOT concerned with minimizing the cost of your treatment to the insurance company.

On the other hand, when the government gets to decide who receives care, who will outrank the bioethicists that ration it (the death panel)?

I want someone with no interest in the cost above my provider. I may need to bring my provider in front a judge to challenge the rationing. Where is the provision for that objectivity when the government is both the referee and one of the players?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 25, 2009 7:50 AM | Report abuse

>>Because they're called the death panel if you've got cancer and your doctor wants to try something -- something that your current insurance company would pay for because it *might* help, but which the panel will declare "unnecessary" because statistically it's not worth the money.

Um, OK. So the government -- which is -not- mandated to run at a profit -- is going to kerbosh this experimental treatment, but a private insurer -- which -is- mandated to run at a profit -- will instead pay for the expensive and risky treatment? More cognitive treatment we can hook up to turbines! The hot air anti-reform activists are spewing could replace fossil fuels in a giffy.

It's actually a lot like the attempt to scuttle Social Security: Conservatives said, the program is projected to go broke so we should move the money over to the private market. Except... the projections that had the program failing (and, by the way, these are the low bound, not the expected behavior) do so because the economy grows anemically. But if the economy is moribund, then the stock market will itself dribble along and won't generate the revenue needed.

It's amazing how many "arguments" are put forth by the rabid right that, in the end, come down to "attacking" a position by using assumptions that make their so-called "correct" solution look -even worse-.

Posted by: gilroy0 | August 25, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

"So the government -- which is -not- mandated to run at a profit -- is going to kerbosh this experimental treatment, but a private insurer -- which -is- mandated to run at a profit -- will instead pay for the expensive and risky treatment?"

Because the private insurer has government to judge its obligations and hold it to them without being concerned about the insurer's profits.

On the other hand, government as a provider/insurer has no such accountability, and whether or not it seeks profit it still must be conscious of its budget.

Government can force insurers to provide more care than it will ever demand of itself.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | August 25, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

kingstu01:"Ezra, if you and the left want "competition" why not allow any insurance company (with a minimum AM Best rating) to sell insurance across state lines. Krugman seems to only want “competition” if the government is running the Public Option. How about you?"

I get tired of this argument. In reality most states allow insurers based in other states to issue insurance. The insurers just have to comply with the rules of the states they sell in. The rules generally have to do with fiscal soundness and with not issuing placebo insurance policies that fail to cover most of what insured people want and need covered. Basically the rules require that insurers be honest and ethical. Some companies, especially ones issuing policies that are exceptionally cheap (unitil you have claims, that is) fail to be able to leap that hurdle.

In fact, these companies are the ones responsible for about 80% of the bad publicity that health insurers get. If all states excluded these people, it would be a lot harder to portray insurers as bad guys and to argue against programs depending on private insurers for coverage. I suspect that if the health insurance exchange system is passed, with appropriate accompanying rules, including perhaps requiring exchange participants to comply with IMAC policy, that we will see a lot more insurance sold across state lines.

Granted, there are some states that exclude for profit health insurers as well as all other for profit health care players. But for the most part it's go where you want to go and do what you want to do.

Posted by: PatS2 | August 25, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

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