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Reporting the Lies

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Every day, my inbox fills with dozens of press releases, tips and advisories. Most of them tell of something that is already happening, or that is scheduled to happen in the near future. My involvement isn't necessary for the thing to occur. Rather, my role is to decide — and it is a decision — whether people will know about it.

Monday's Washington Post features a disheartened Howard Kurtz ruminating on the apparent impotence of the media in the face of the lies, smears and demagoguery that has afflicted the health care debate. "For once," Kurtz says, "mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists." It didn't much matter. Recent polls show that Americans believe all sorts of untruths about the health-care bills traveling through Congress. "Even when they report the facts," sighs Kurtz, "[the media] have had trouble influencing public opinion."

But before the media reported the facts, they hyped the lies. There are a lot of things the average American doesn't know about. Before Sarah Palin talked about death panels, for instance, no one knew about Sen. Johnny Isakson's quiet crusade to persuade Medicare beneficiaries to adopt living wills. It did not lead every newscast and it was not reported in every paper. This despite the fact that Isakson (R-Ga.), unlike Palin, has a vote on health-care reform.

It is true that Palin's statements eventually got fact-checked. The New York Times, in particular, spoke clearly and forcefully, albeit well after the controversy had begun dominating the coverage. But the world is full of lies. There aren't enough reporters on the planet to fact-check them all. That's okay, as most lies aren't reported. Stories about the Obamas heading to Martha's Vineyard do not have to contend with stories about a crank who thinks they're really heading to a secret rejuvenation chamber in the Himalayas.

Long before the media ever fact-checks a debate, they construct it. Piece by piece, bit by bit. There is not, however, a whole lot of substantive news on any given day, even as health-care reform remains the central issue before Congress. So they cover the controversy. They cover the lies and the untruths and the angry ads. Sometimes they fact-check these documents and sometimes they don't, but it probably doesn't much matter in the long run: For the past few weeks, the casual consumer of news has heard about death panels and illegal immigrants and skyrocketing deficits and violent town halls. They may not believe all those things. But they assume they're part of the national conversation for a reason, and, quite naturally, they recoil from the center of it.

On Thursday, Jon Stewart invited Betsy McCaughey onto the Daily Show. McCaughey is a professional liar who specializes in lying about health-care reform. Stewart wanted to embarrass her, and some even thought he did. But what he really did was secure her a forum. Viewers saw a segment asking whether health-care reform will kill their grandmothers. Maybe they agreed that Stewart effectively debunked the claims. But more likely, they wondered how good a bill could be if there literally had to be an argument over whether or not it would kill grandma.

Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies. The average voter doesn't take their cues from the fifth paragraph in our articles, the one that explains that the quote in the first paragraph isn't necessarily true. They form fuzzy impressions from the shape of the overall conversation. The occasional fact-check isn't nearly so powerful as the aggregate impression conveyed by the coverage. And even if, as Kurtz says, the media has made some admirable efforts to combat specific lies, they — we — have allowed lies and chaos to emerge as the subject of the health-care reform debate.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 24, 2009; 11:35 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

The sad thing is that we really do need to have a debate about how much care is appropriate in the last months of life, because that is where most of the costs come for most people. But that discussion has been set back for a decade, it would seem. Until the next Terry Schiavo reminds people what it is really about.

It is interesting that politicians (at least GOPers) don't see themselves as part of the government. So they rail about "the government" interfering in people's choices while they vow to block funding for discussions about end-of-life care. Michelle Bachmann kind of gave the game away when she said the government should keep its hands off her body, echoing the standard pro-choice line.

Posted by: Mimikatz | August 24, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

I wish they had gone a step further and asked whether the item was good or bad. Obviously the last one is bad, but it's also ridiculous.

Posted by: bcbulger | August 24, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I understand the position you are in, being gainfully employed by the Washington Post, and all... but... the WP, and especially the editorial wing of the WP, has been one of the main players in the misinformation campaign regarding health care. While the subdued shout-out to the Times may be a subtle jab at your employer, it needs to be said somewhere on this page that the Washington Post has been terrible at confining the lies to the fringes of Facebook blather.

Posted by: giora1 | August 24, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Quoth Ezra Klein:
>>Stories about the Obamas heading to Martha's Vineyard do not have to contend with stories about a crank who thinks they're really heading to a secret rejuvenation chamber in the Himalayas.

And now they -do- have to contend with that rumor. Way to go, Ezra.

:)

Posted by: gilroy0 | August 24, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

How do you feel about Michael Steele's op-ed from today?

Posted by: SteveCA1 | August 24, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Long before the media ever fact-checks a debate, they construct it. Piece by piece, bit by bit. There is not, however, a whole lot of substantive news on any given day, even as health-care reform remains the central issue before Congress. So they cover the controversy. They cover the lies and the untruths and the angry ads. Sometimes they fact-check these documents and sometimes they don't, but it probably doesn't much matter in the long run: For the past few weeks, the casual consumer of news has heard about death panels and illegal immigrants and skyrocketing deficits and violent town halls. They may not believe all those things. But they assume they're part of the national conversation for a reason, and, quite naturally, they recoil from the center of it.

Wow. Very insightful, and well put.

Too bad the Washington Post doesn't have a media critic, this sort of thing would be right up his alley.

Posted by: antontuffnell | August 24, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

1. I'm curious about polling accuracy during August. This is a month where core demographic groups that are likely to support health care reform -- young families with the means to travel; and students who aren't in school -- might be left out of polling data. There could be a skew.

This is speculation; however, even with the presidential race last year, there seemed to be a drift in the polls in favor of the GOP during the late summer months.

I'm curious to see the numbers in early mid-Sept. when people return back to normal routines. It's possible that the July-August period are a kind of "outlier" month in terms of polling data.

2. The "death panel" framing is what I see as the main issue. Rather than stating that members of GOP are opposed to "living wills"; we have the most skewed framing of the issue possible serving as the point of departure. Part of the challenge is that it took generalist-journalists a few days to actually get up to speed on the issue. I don't entirely blame them -- I'm not a specialist, but I have been following the debate closely, and it took me a few days to get my head around the issue at stake. It may be that the 24 hour media environment favors disinformation campaigns. The other side of this too is that August is a strange month for media coverage -- this is a period that is a kind of news dead-zone; so marginal stories get amplified.

My sense though is that the reality of the health care debate is still very much in flux.

Based on anecdotal evidence, I was a bit surprised this weekend to hear a friend who is a conservative leaning 30-something, who works for a small business, state that he actually thought we should have universal health care. I don't know if his opinion is representative; however, if it is, that also says something about where this debate really stands. He didn't vote for Obama, yet he favors this kind of policy change, because it is a real issue that impacts both his employers financial well-being and the financial well-being of friends.

Posted by: JPRS | August 24, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

I totally disagree with your take on Jon Stewart. What he did wasn't just debunk McCaughey's lies. He discredited her as a voice in the health care reform argument period. He made her looked like the whacked out loon that she is and by the end of the interview most rational people probably were surprised she didn't come on the set wearing a tin foil hat.

There are times to ignore a liar and there are times to expose them. He exposed her in a way that no other mainstream media source has. Even those that fact checked her work made it seem as if she was attempting to be on the up and up but maybe just got it wrong. Jon Stewart on the other hand showed the world that she is an unhinged crazy person intent on kiling health care reform. We should rightly mock and deride people like McCaughey and laugh at her rather than just say she got it wrong as the mainstream media has.

Posted by: sgwhiteinfla | August 24, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

"What he did wasn't just debunk McCaughey's lies. He discredited her as a voice in the health care reform argument period."

He only discredits her if the non-fake news media now decides that McCaughey is persona non grata. How did that work out for Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, Jim Cramer and the other people who get eviscerated by Jon Stewart?

A certain kind of liar has a credit limit with the US media that will never be maxed out.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 24, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

"Reporting the facts is important. But so too is not reporting — or at least not focusing, day after day — on the lies."

Does that include DEMOCRAT LIES?

Of course not. That would require the ability to think broadly, wisely and fairly. All of which sorely missing by the grossly left-wing media.

Posted by: russpoter | August 24, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

On the public funding of abortion, the President does not have his facts right. There are lots of bills, and surely he has read exactly none of them, so I won't say he's "lying"--it's not clear what he wants or will approve of in a final package yet. But FactCheck has rechecked, and the House Bill provides for public funding, even as it (apparently) purports to ban it:

http://factcheck.org/2009/08/abortion-which-side-is-fabricating/

Posted by: FrBill1 | August 24, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

oh wait you mean INSURANCE coverage for illegals or HEALTHCARE for illegals? Please specify becuase they're covered for healthcare, not for insurance. We're still paying for them.

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

The sad thing about the "Death Panels" framing is that it should have been easy to turn around, and just as sensationally say; "but there are real death panels right now: insurance companies are deciding who gets life-saving treatment and who is denied coverage. These reforms will eliminate those death panels."

Big missed opportunity for messaging by reformers.

Posted by: jeirvine | August 24, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra--Great post. As a former journalist (well, at least, for a year or two) and a professional researcher who deals with health care issues on a pretty regular basis, I've been profoundly depressed by mainstream media coverage of health debates, and by the general level of discourse about these issues, pretty much anywhere but your blog. So thank you for doing an outstanding job.

That said, a question: Doesn't this depress you? How can you the hackery coming out of so much of the MSM--your paper among the worst offenders--and not get deeply, profoundly depressed about how little most reporters and politicians seem in having a reasonably informed and thoughtful debate?

Posted by: brad12345 | August 24, 2009 9:48 PM | Report abuse

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