BY TONY PALMERI
Last month in what some in the punditocracy view as a dire warning for pro-Affordable Care Act (i.e., ACA or Obamacare) Democrats heading into November’s midterm elections, Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a special election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District. David Weigel’s Slate.com piece released two days before the election (“Obamacare’s Ground Zero”) lent support to the view that Jolly’s “repeal the law” rhetoric mobilized his base voters more than Sink’s “fix the law” message mobilized hers.
No one disputes that the rollout of healthcare.gov was a disaster, and it’s also true that President Obama and Congressional Democrats employed misleading sound bites (e.g., “If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan. Period.”) in the run up to the vote on the bill and afterwards. Unfortunately, the rigor with which the press attacked the website woes and presidential gaffes seems absent when it comes to Obamacare “horror stories.” The stories involve citizens like Michigan cancer patient Julie Boonstra (featured in a Koch Brothers’ Americans For Prosperity ad) who, allegedly because of Obamacare, will be made to suffer medically and/or financially in a way not possible before the legislation.
Few if any of the horror stories hold up to scrutiny, yet continue to be featured in GOP campaign advertising, fundraising appeals, and stump speeches.
In 2012, when called out on their inaccuracies about President Obama’s record on welfare reform, Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse famously said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” The “Newhouse Strategy” now represents the GOP approach to communicating about Obamacare.
Some working journalists have taken up the task of debunking Obamacare horror stories. The most accessible are Paul Waldman in the American Prospect, Erik Wemple in the Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times. Some on the Right accuse such journalists of trying to “silence Obamacare critics.” Hiltzik, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, correctly notes that when it comes to Obamacare, horror stories news organizations aren’t doing their jobs: “What a lot of these stories have in common are, first of all, a subject largely unaware of his or her options under the ACA or unwilling to determine them; and, second, shockingly uninformed and incurious news reporters, including some big names in the business, who don’t bother to look into the facts of the cases they’re offering for public consumption.” (emphasis added)
Probably the most diligent media watchdog of Obamacare stories is Maggie Mahar, author of “Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much” (Harper Collins 2006). On her blog (healthbeatblog.com) she approaches Obamacare the way all journalists should: probing beneath the partisan fantasies to find out what the law is actually doing. In our hyper-politicized media environment, Mahar’s Journalism 101 approach is in some quarters labeled “pro-Obamacare.” She told WNYC’s “On the Media” program: “I’m not an advocate for Obamacare. I’m an advocate for the truth. I’ve read the entire law three times. I know what’s in it. And so, when I read accounts of the legislation that are not true, I write about it.”
Following what should be standard journalistic practice, Mahar laboriously interviews producers, reporters, and subjects of stories she finds misleading or inaccurate. Her two-part blog entry “How a CBS Video About an Obamacare Victim Misled Millions” is instructive in showing the extent to which shoddy reporting turned a major network into part of the anti-Obamacare disinformation campaign. The blog entry analyzes errors in a CBS report headlined “Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare.” In the report, citizen Debra Fishericks of Virginia Beach believes, inaccurately as it turns out, that under Obamacare her insurance premiums would go up “higher and higher” because of her pre-existing cancer condition. She’s worried that Obamacare might break her budget to the point where she can no longer visit her grandson in Indiana. Fishericks’ story ran on 58 CBS stations, thousands of blogs, and other sources.
Mahar’s interviews with the CBS team involved in producing the Fishericks story reveal a staff that seemed to have internalized conservative anti-Obamacare talking points. The CBS report fit the pattern Mahar finds in many stories about Obamacare: “Reporters were printing and parroting the fictions and half-truths that conservatives fed to the media. And in an era of cut-and-paste journalism, the myths became memes, iterated over and over again. Little wonder that many people — including journalists — didn’t know what to believe. This, I think, is one reason why no one at CBS caught the glaring error in Fishericks’ story.”
Mahar has sympathy for reporters who might not have time to wade through a 2,000-page law. “But ideally, reporters would have dug into the in-depth briefs published by groups such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,” she says. That’s good advice for all of us.
Even if reporters better grasped the ACA, we’d probably still see exploitative, sensationalistic stories as the mainstream media norm. Why? Because while sensationalism is a terrible way to cover the health beat, it does feed the media wealth beat. Unfortunately news producers do not believe that nuanced, well researched stories can attract and sustain high audience levels. For that, we all suffer. ν
Tony Palmeri (Twitter: @tonypalmeri) is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh.