What Betsy McCaughey Knows
Michelle Cottle's take down of professional health-care policy liar Betsy McCaughey is deservedly vicious and unabashedly welcome. In particular, there's something sweet about the profile appearing in the New Republic, the magazine which first published McCaughey's deceptions in 1993 and thus launched her to stardom.
Those of you who are unfamiliar with McCaughey probably aren't unfamiliar with her many, many lies. In 1994, she published the influential article "No Exit," which claimed that Clinton's health-care plan would not allow you to purchase health-care services with your own money. This was debunked in one of the first provisions of the bill, which read, “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services.” This year, she's famous for providing the base deceptions that led to the "death panel" nonsense, and for seeding talk radio with the idea that the stimulus bill would put your doctor under the control of the newly-created Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology. That office turned out to be a George W. Bush creation.
Few deserve to be skewered like McCaughey. In that sense, Cottle's piece is like "Inglourious Basterds" for the health wonk set. But McCaughey is not now, and arguably never was, the point. She was discredited many years ago. Conservative policy wonks like Stuart Butler and Gail Wilensky are no kinder to her deceptions than liberals like Henry Aaron and James Fallows. No editor in the country has an excuse for being unaware that she is a fraud. Yet she keeps getting published, and promoted, and her lies keep finding their target. Why?
The answer, basically, is that McCaughey is useful. She's useful to the New York Post and Fox News and Sarah Palin. She's among the best in the business at the Big Lie: not the dull claim that health-care reform will slightly increase the deficit or trim Medicare Advantage benefits, but the claim that it will result in Death Panels that decide the fate of the elderly, or a new model of medical ethics in which the lives of the old are sacrificed for the good of the young, or a government agency that will review the actions of every doctor. McCaughey isn't just a liar. She's an exciting liar.
That's not very helpful in the policy debate, but it's very useful in the media debate. It's useful first for the conservative outlets who promote it and use it to confirm their audience's biases and make their listeners feel like they're getting the inside scoop, and then for the mainstream outlets-- my paper among them, and my blog among them -- that "cover the controversy," that report on Chuck Grassley talking about "pulling the plug on grandma" and run fact-checks and reaction stories in response to Sarah Palin's looniest claims. McCaughey might be something of a uniquely deceptive individual, but she's taking advantage of a structural weakness in the system. She's figured out the media's thermal exhaust port, and pointed it out to everyone else. And she won't be the last to use it.
Photo credit: David Karp/AP.
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