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The Power of Nonsense

PH2009081001714.jpgThe fine folks at C-SPAN assure me that they'll have an embeddable version of my interview with Karen Ignagni a bit later today (it'll air on C-SPAN on Sunday). The first question was asked by a reporter from the Washington Times and focused on the mania that's gripped the debate in the last few weeks.

Part of the problem, Ignagni answered, is that the media has become obsessed with process stories and has done a very poor job communicating the base level of consensus there is around the plan or even the actual outlines of the plan itself. On that, we agree entirely. Over at TPM DC, Brian Beutler grabbed a couple headlines so folks could get a flavor of the current coverage:

New York Times: "False 'Death Panel' Rumor Has Some Familiar Roots"

Politico: "Sarah Palin and "death panels" - is she helping or hurting her political future?"

Brian's point, of course, was that the New York Times has written a serious and truthful story that added to the reader's understanding of the debate, while Politico had decided to go meta on the death panels. Not a flattering contrast for Politico.

But whether the stories about death panels are good or bad, clear or opaque, the fact that we're sitting around discussing some perverse lie is not a good sign for health-care reform. It's evidence that the media has gotten distracted, and is in turn distracting the country, with a trivial and dishonest diversion tactic.

When the conversation about health-care reform is reduced to explaining that the bill does not in fact establish "death panels," the public takeaway is not likely to be that this is a pretty good bill. A world in which every paper is running front pagers about Sarah Palin's lie may be a world in which Sarah Palin is understood to be a liar, but it's not a world in which health-care reform is doing terribly well. Somehow, the job of the media has to be more than debunking nonsense. It has to be making sure that nonsense doesn't come to take over an important policy debate. The point of all this death panel stuff is not simply to distort the underlying merits of the bill, but to distract from them. And at that, at least, it's succeeding.

Photo credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

By Ezra Klein  |  August 14, 2009; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform  
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Next: An Interview With Ezekiel Emanuel


excellent post, ezra.
thank you for all of the hard work.
and for aspiring to the highest standards of your profession, during very challenging times.

Posted by: jkaren | August 14, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Yeah except that when Ignani says

"the media has become obsessed with process stories and has done a very poor job communicating the base level of consensus there is around the plan or even the actual outlines of the plan itself."

What she's referring to is the media's inability to point out Obama's dishonesty. As you know, while he is going on railing on insurance companies and the need for new "consumer protections" they've already agreed to all of them. Obama's campaigning on things of which there is little to no dispute, but taking political cheap shots at AHIP's clients. You'd be hard-pressed to find an article that led with Obama's stump speech, and then pointed out that none of his current talking points are in questions.

That's HER point.

Posted by: wisewon | August 14, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

It's evidence that the media has gotten distracted, and is in turn distracting the country, with a trivial and dishonest diversion tactic. Distracted? The MSM is doing the bidding of their corporate overloards.

Posted by: obrier2 | August 14, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

It isn't the job of the media to lobby for a particular policy. The ultimate problem here is still substantive, not procedural. If Obama had a clear plan that people wanted, or even a clear objective to persuade people toward, he'd be dominating the news. But he doesn't, and so these sideshows grow to fill the void.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 14, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"It's evidence that the media has gotten distracted..." No. The media is feeding its bottom line as always. "Death Panels' is punchy, sensational and scary...just like a good horror movie. Big box office bonanza. Wheeee!

Posted by: glewiss | August 14, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

"It isn't the job of the media to lobby for a particular policy."

What the hell does this even mean in the context of Ezra's post? That they're not supposed to take sides in opposing claims of whether the earth is flat or not?

Posted by: constans | August 14, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

To be fair, Politico is more of a "politics" blog than an "issues" blog (hence the name). Thankfully we have blogs like yours that have a different balance.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | August 14, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I'd really love to read a health care reform proponent, like Ezra, respond to Charles Lane's WaPost column on end of life counseling.

Posted by: besnyder1 | August 14, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Ezra. I said the same thing when you wrote that post a couple of days ago complaining about Democracy.

Posted by: leoklein | August 14, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

the point is that healthcare and the systems that they operate in (be it private, medicare, va, etc) are complicated. Some more than others but every step you go how do you know if you're plan participates and accepts a contracted rate as payment in full. Its the complication that CEO's of major companies can't understand so how can Grandma understand she's not going to die.

Under single payer I don't know that this changes either. Are we forcing doctors to accept a single payer model? If so won't we end up with a lot less doctors.

oh and as a sidenote I'm sick and tired of seeing Obama's staged town halls. He's not coming up against the 50% that are against his policies in his town hall's. These are love fests that conjure up not the change that he promised but typical politicians and the crap that they are.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 14, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

I won't argue that Obama is not a typical politician. But I have not heard that attendees are forced to take a loyalty oath before being let into town halls like the Bush appearance here in Minnesota required a couple years back.

It might be that respect for the office of the president is tempering his audiences. People generally do not respect their members of congress (Congress typically has a very low approval rating) so they might feel free to be more abusive towards them than they would be towards Obama at an event.

Posted by: luko | August 14, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

"A world in which every paper is running front pagers about Sarah Palin's lie..."

But is it profit maximizing for the vast majority of papers not to publish this way?

Of course the positive externalities of more and better serious investigation, monitoring, and publishing thereof, more quality control, hiring of on-staff experts, or expert consultants in economics and science, hiring of more research and investigation assistants, etc. are enormous. But if these enormous positive externalities are not subsidized, is it really a surprise that they are grossly underspent on and underprovided?

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

One reason is these enormous positive externalities to good serious investigative journalism. But other than the minute percentage of GDP spent on public broadcasting, I don't know of any subsidizing of them.

What about something like a very large tax credit for serious investigative journalism expenses, for fact checkers, for on-staff experts in economics and the sciences, etc.? This would not favor any specific media outlet, it would only subsidize certain objective expenses, and could be done in a very clinical accounting way. I know there are serious potential costs and problems to this, but these might be very manageable and reasonable in a well run program, and the enormous benefits could greatly outweigh the costs and problems?

Has this been seriously and depthfully thought about in economics? I just did a JSTOR search of economics journals for media and externalities in abstract -- I found one article, and it wasn't on media externalities. Journalism and externalities in abstract yielded 0, and I've never seen this discussed in the econ blogosphere except when I've brought it up.

This certainly can't be because externalities in the journalism business aren't socially significant, and the pros and cons of addressing them are not large, not of much social value.

It can't be that this subject is seemingly never analyzed in economics because it has little potential impact on societal utility.

So why can I not find it analyzed and discussed in either the economics journals or blogosphere?

Is it just somehow clear that given the benefits and costs and problems, the optimal amount and way to subsidize good serious investigative journalism is with the small amount spent on public broadcasting?

It seems like this is something which should be thought about and seriously studied by at least some economists, other academics, and public intellectuals.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 14, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse


no you haven't heard that and Bush was wrong for doing that and i also agree that a certain amount of decorum (sp) needs to be taken since he's the President but I was watching CNN the other night and a conservative activist said that he applied to go into the town hall and had to have his application to join in vetted by the White House. he had to send in his email address and a lot of private information and still he wasn't allowed in. I understand not everyone's getting in but it just seems very slanted towards the president's views compared to what you're seeing at other town halls and in the polls we are inundated with every day. That being said if that's what he's doing, its wrong. He came into office on a pledge to change partisan politics and he's doing the same thing Bush was doing just this time in favor of the progressive and liberals.

that to me is like Eliot Spitzer teaching a class in morality. If you come in on a high horse you had better STAY on that high horse otherwise you'll be rightfully called on the carpet once you stoop down.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 14, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

the media coverage of the health care debate has been abysmal but that was to be expected since health care reform is like complicated.

what disappoints me more is that the democrats didn't contest the death panel debate. saying that, in fact, there are no death panels in the bill is not sufficient. they needed to go on offense and explain why the advance care planning coverage is damn good policy. it provides for a BENEFIT that is currently not covered. research shows that the consultations improve patient satisfaction and quality of care. current policy discourages doctors from having these conversations. and yeah, it saves a lot of money. not because there's anything coercive about talking to your doctor but because the fact is, most of us believe that being hooked up to machines so that our organs keep functioning for a few more weeks even though there's very little chance of regaining mental soundness is indeed a fate worse than death.

they should be citing research, they should be quoting doctors and telling stories of patients and families, they should have polled the public on this by now: do you fear that your doctor will pressure you to end your life early? do you think medicare should cover end of life consultations if a patient wants one? do you want your organs kept alive by machines? they should be "why do republicans want to cut this medicare benefit?" "why do republicans think doctors will coerce their patients into dying before they want to?" "why do they think medicare patients can't handle this information or don't know what's good for them?"

aggg. obama saying i'm not in favor of pulling the plug on grandma was one of the most disappointing things i've had to watch this year. if this doesn't end up in the law i'm going to ... well i guess i won't do anything but i will probably die a little bit inside

Posted by: inquirium | August 14, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I agree that progressives have been too defensive about the bill(s) working their way through. Too many people say there is no clarity where there is much consensus.

We need to be saying that we are in agreement on: no pre-ex, no underwriting, no recission, community rating, expanding Medicaid, subsidies for lower paid to afford coverage, benefit value actuarial equivalence for plans offered, and exchanges to buy it in. EXACTLY what some of these will be (eg, are subsidies to 300% or 400% of FPL) need to be worked out but basic agreement is there.

We also need to be clear that where there is not consensus at present is really limited to public option v coop v none, and employer mandate v free rider surcharge v none.

This feels more concrete to people. This is not too complicated to understand. Easy talking points to pound away at.

Oh, and we need to tell everyone that there employer based coverage is a secure as their employment. And for those with retiree medical and they feel secure there, I spent the last 20 years getting companies out of those obligations too.

Posted by: scott1959 | August 14, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra says..."It's evidence that the media has gotten distracted, and is in turn distracting the country, with a trivial and dishonest diversion tactic."

But whenever has the media not gotten distracted? Do you honestly think that hasn't or didn't cross the minds of the people opposed to health-care reform in coming up with the brilliant campaign that is unfolding before our eyes?

If the Democrats are foolish enough never to plan in advance against the media getting distracted with trivial diversionary tactics, why should the Republicans not take advantage of that? I would. I mean it is not like this is the first time this has happened.

Posted by: ZnanaB | August 15, 2009 5:31 AM | Report abuse

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