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'Real people' don't make headlines

Thursday, Sept. 23 was an important day. But only some in the media treated it that way.

The Obama health law remains controversial, and unpopular in many quarters, which is no surprise. It's big and complicated and people are understandably worried about costs and coverage. Some of the benefits are front-loaded while the more difficult parts, including the individual mandate to buy insurance, are back-loaded. The Republicans have largely succeeded in painting it as big government run amok.

I can't shake the feeling that journalists are mainly interested in the political controversy. As in, how many Democrats are distancing themselves from Obamacare in the midterms, and how many Republicans are running ads attacking it.

But now some important benefits have kicked in, benefits that affect real families.

--Children can no longer be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions. (Anyone wanna repeal that?)

--Insured people can no longer be dumped by insurance bureacrats who discover technical mistakes on applications.

--Lifetime caps on benefits are now outlawed.

--Adult kids can be carried on their parents' policies until they turn 26.

This is not an argument for Obamacare. But the media are not always at their best when it comes to the impact of government on real people. Unless some outrageous example of corporate heartlessness is involved, there's no conflict to chronicle.

The New York Times did a terrific job with a piece that began:

"Sometimes lost in the partisan clamor about the new health care law is the profound relief it is expected to bring to hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been stricken first by disease and then by a Darwinian insurance system."

Reporter Kevin Sack did three sidebars, on three types of patients who have been affected, in California, Kansas and Virginia.

Katie Couric led the "CBS Evening News" with the health care changes. Diane Sawyer had it second on "World News." But I didn't see it being debated on the nighttime cable shows.

The Washington Post has a short summary of the law's changes on Page 2. I didn't see anyone put it on the front page.

I predict the new benefits will be a one-day story, quickly subsumed by the midterms, the Woodward book, the Facebook movie and Lindsay Lohan's latest drug violation.

The jury is very much out on health care reform. But some important evidence has now been admitted, and we ought to stay on the case.

Deficit hypocrisy

The headline above pertains to just about everyone in politics these days.

They all decry the budget deficit until it comes time to do something specific--that is, painful--to slash it.

Take the House Republicans, who released their "Pledge to America" on Thursday. They've been moaning and groaning about the Obama deficits. So what do they do? Call for permanently extending the Bush tax cuts--yes, for millionaires as well--which would cost hundreds of billions of dollars in red ink.

But they're the party of small government, right? Well, the pledge lacks specifics on spending cuts. Defense is off the table. Medicare and Social Security remain untouched. Those are the big-ticket items. Budget-cutters who avoid those areas simply aren't serious.

The GOP does call for a spending freeze on most government programs (not affecting the elderly or veterans or the military), saving an estimated $100 billion. That's great. The deficit this year will top $1.3 trillion.

Under the pledge, John Boehner's team would repeal Obamacare and replace it with...something else. Of course, the health-care law is supposed to save money in some ways, though that remains to be seen.

After going on a spending binge--justified, Obama says, by the financial calamity he inherited--the Democrats don't have a serious deficit-cutting plan, either. But the health-care law would slice into Medicare outlays, which is the only way to save real money. The Republicans don't like that.

And the tea party? The folks who say our swollen government is somehow flouting the Constitution? They, too, don't call for any cutbacks in Medicare or Social Security.
The pledge is a good starting point for debate, an effort to shed the Party of No label. But neither party wants to upset large numbers of Americans this close to an election.

The GOP document is not a big hit with many on the right, including Red State's Erick Erickson, who calls it a "ridiculous" bunch of "compromises and milquetoast rhetorical flourishes in search of unanimity among House Republicans because the House GOP does not have the fortitude to lead boldly in opposition to Barack Obama...

"Yes, yes, it is full of mom tested, kid approved pablum that will make certain hearts on the right sing in solidarity. But like a diet full of sugar, it will actually do nothing but keep making Washington fatter before we crash from the sugar high.

"It is dreck -- dreck with some stuff I like, but like Brussels sprouts in butter. I like the butter, not the Brussels sprouts. Overall, this grand illusion of an agenda that will never happen is best spoken of today and then never again as if it did not happen. It is best forgotten."

I have the firm impression that he doesn't like it.

David Frum wonders why Erickson is surprised:

"Here is the GOP cruising to a handsome election victory. Did you seriously imagine that they would jeopardize the prospect of victory and chairmanships by issuing big, bold promises to do deadly unpopular things?...

"Tea Party activists have been claiming all year that there exists in the United States a potential voting majority for radically more limited government.

"The Republican 'Pledge to America' declares: Sorry, we don't believe that. We shall cut spending where we can - reform the legislative process in important ways - and sever the federal guarantee for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans will redirect the federal government to a new path that is less expensive and intrusive than the status quo. But if you want promises of radical change? No. Too risky. We don't think the voters want that - not the smaller, older, richer, whiter electorate that votes in non-presidential years, much less the bigger, younger, poorer, less white electorate of presidential years. And even that smaller, older, richer, whiter electorate is highly wary of cuts to programs that benefit them, Medicare above all."

Andrew Sullivan sees it as a fraud:

"Given the gravity of the debt crisis, this is the most fiscally irresponsible document ever offered by the GOP. It is to the far right of Reagan, who raised taxes and eventually cut defense, and helped reform social security to ensure its longterm viability. It is an act of vandalism against the fiscal balance of the U.S., and in this global economic climate, a recipe for a double-dip recession and default. It is the opposite of responsible conservatism."

But the plan draws some applause from National Review, which compares it to Newt Gingrich's 1994 manifesto:

"The pledge is bolder. The Contract with America merely promised to hold votes on popular bills that had been bottled up during decades of Democratic control of the House. The pledge commits Republicans to working toward a broad conservative agenda that, if implemented, would make the federal government significantly smaller, Congress more accountable, and America more prosperous....

"The pledgemakers note that federal spending has grown too much 'over the last decade': There is no pretense that this problem began with President Obama, or even Speaker Pelosi....

"There are, of course, things we would prefer the Republicans to do differently. In some areas the pledge includes misguided policies, in others the Republicans could have been bolder, and in still others we need more details to evaluate it."

The plan, not surprisingly, draws hoots of derision on the left, starting with Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly:

"It's tempting to think House Republicans deserve at least some credit for making the effort. After all, the GOP hasn't even tried to craft a policy agenda in many years. The point of the 'Pledge,' presumably, is to help demonstrate that congressional Republicans aren't just the 'party of no'; this is a new GOP prepared to reclaim the mantle of 'party of ideas.'

"But that's precisely why the endeavor is such an embarrassing failure. The document combines old ideas, bad ideas, contradictory ideas, and discredited ideas. The Republican Party that lost control of Congress four years ago has had an abundance of time to craft a policy vision that offered credible, serious solutions. Instead, we're confronted with a document that can best be described as tired nonsense."

Budget-cutting makes for great rhetoric. But there's a reason that politicians go to extreme lengths to avoid doing it.

On Marty Peretz and punditry

I've been criticized a few million times for things I have written and said. That's fair game.

Now I'm being slammed for something I didn't write or say.

I am, according to Columbia Journalism Review, remaining "silent." (Don't I have that Fifth Amendment right, like you see in the movies?)

My sin is that I have not denounced Marty Peretz. More on that in a moment.

The reason I have not weighed in is--boredom alert--I have been swamped. I cling to the old-fashioned belief that I ought to know what I'm talking about before I pop off. I put a lot of research, and thought, into what I write and say.

In recent weeks I've been swamped with launching and maintaining this real-time blog, including such mundane tasks as learning how to post video. I've also been traveling quite a bit. So I did not believe the world was breathlessly waiting to hear what I had to say about Peretz.

What the owner of the New Republic wrote, in a blog post, was this: "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims." And he questioned whether "these people" were worthy of First Amendment protection. I find those to be outrageous and unacceptable statements. You can say that about some Muslim terrorists, and you can criticize some Muslims for failing to speak out against violence, but how do you libel everyone who follows Islam?

I became aware of this when Nick Kristof of the New York Times denounced Peretz for bigotry. Then I saw that Peretz had apologized. I linked to the apology on this blog; Kristol had repudiated the comments more eloquently than I could have. I also noticed that the former Harvard professor had been disinvited from a speaking engagement at the university. It's a perfectly legitimate story. But I've been focused on the midterms and some newspaper profiles and did not find time to reflect on it.

Yes, I was highly critical of Helen Thomas saying that Israelis should go back to places like Germany and Poland, but I was reporting that story for the paper. I called Thomas and got her comments. Then she quit her job, and the story got bigger.

The Guardian e-mailed me for comment on the Peretz business and I said I was sorry but hadn't focused on it. Then the CJR guy sent me a note but it got lost in the hundreds of e-mails I get each day. But I still believe I shouldn't weigh in on every controversy that comes down the pike without a bit of reflection.

The journalism review went on to say that I've been remiss in not criticizing Peretz's history of bigoted statements. But I would have to study what he said, and the surrounding context, to know whether that's true.

I guess we live in a culture where everyone, including media critics, is supposed to have an instant response to everything that happens. But I'm going to resist that urge.

Hey, didja see that John Boehner said he'd never been in a tanning bed? You know what I think about that? Uh, I'll get back to you.

By Howard Kurtz  | September 24, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Latest stories  
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