News broadcast, or infomercial?

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Via Darren Hutchinson, Here's how a CBS report about AARP and health care begins: "CBS News has learned that up to 60,000 people have cancelled their AARP membership since July 1st, angered over the group's position on health care."

CBS News "has learned" that "up to" 60,000 people have cancelled AARP memberships? Well, that sounds awfully fishy, doesn't it?

"Up to 60,000 people" could accurately describe 60,000 people, 50,000 people, 30,000 people, or two dozen people. Generally, people use the phrase "up to ____ people" when they want to focus your attention on a large number they don't know is actually true. If CBS actually knew there were 60,000 cancellations, they'd just say "60,000 people," without the "up to" wiggle words.

So, since CBS apparently has no idea how many people have cancelled memberships, how have they "learned" about this? It seems rather obvious that CBS "learned" this not by gaining access to AARP's records, or from an AARP official, but from the American Seniors Association, a right-wing fundraising organization featured in the CBS report. ASA is urging seniors to mail them torn-up AARP membership cards, which ASA will reward with half-off membership.

There's no reason to take ASA's claims about AARP's membership seriously -- they are not in any position to know, and have a clear interest in inflating the number of cancellations. That's almost certainly how CBS News "has learned" about the AARP membership cancellations -- ASA told them. And, since ASA has no idea how many people have actually cancelled AARP memberships, and ASA has a clear motivation for inflating those numbers, CBS had to include the "up to" wiggle words.

In short, that first sentence of the CBS report is a pretty clear indication that you should ignore everything that follows.

But ... Let's not. CBS' Sharyl Attkisson next introduces video of Elaine Guardiani saying she is "extremely disappointed in the AARP." Who is Elaine Guardiani? According to Attkisson, Guardiani "has been with AARP for 14 years." What does "with" mean? Employed by? A member of? Who knows. Attkisson's description is painfully vague. Why is she disappointed? Do her concerns have merit? Does she have some expertise we should know about? Who knows. Attkisson doesn't tell us.

And is the Elaine Guardiani who is "extremely disappointed in the AARP" the same Elaine Guardiani who wrote this about Barack Obama last in March of 2008?

I think the church DOES represent Obama's views. He was raised as a moslem then a perported christian ( although do not believe this). this church represents radical racial and hateful views and emulates moslem thinking. He could not be a member for 20 years without knowing about these inflammatory views and by his presence, he condones those views and espouses to them. As President of the United States, he cannot simply care about black people but must care about all people. Too many blacks think of themselves as a separate America. Do we want such views in the white house?
I think not!

Or this last in May of 2008?

"What's next -- am I going to be called a racist if I don't vote for Barack Obama?"

After airing Guardiani's vague criticism of AARP, Attkisson then turned the segment into an ad for ASA, announcing that CBS' "camera was there Friday when the mail came... Letters were filled with cut-up AARP cards." Awfully convenient that Attkisson and her camera crew just happened to be there as ASA was opening their mail, isn't it? Too bad she didn't tell viewers that the cut-up AARP cards were not a spontaneous demonstration of dissatisfaction with AARP, but rather a response to ASA offering financial inducements to send in the cut-up cards. Then again, that would have been journalism rather than an infomercial.

So, who is American Seniors Association? According to Attkisson's report, ASA is a plucky underdog conservative alternative to AARP, benefiting from spontaneous mass disgust with AARP and fighting valiantly for seniors.

But if you do a Nexis search for "American Seniors Association" -- or their previous name, "National Association of Senior Concerns," it seems they appeared virtually out of nowhere, just in time to get a profile on CBS News. Prior to the last week or so, they had sent out a press release about immigration, and announced plans to hold a Republican presidential primary debate (a debate that never happened.)

So who are they really? ASA's web site makes clear they don't want you to know who they are or what they support. Take, for example, "ASA's Four Pillars":

That's it. What does it mean? Who knows! But send your check today!

Go to ASA's "History" page, and you'll find nothing more than a few paragraphs ostensibly written by former Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall -- paragraphs that don't say much of anything beyond "We want to represent your values to government. We don't want to represent government's values to you."

Which values are those? What does this mean? Who knows! But send your check today!

What kind of organization is ASA -- a charity? A foundation? Is it a nonprofit, or a for-profit business? Who knows! ASA's web page doesn't say, and Attkisson doesn't tell us. But send your check today!

UPDATE: Let's say, just for the fun of it, that ASA has actually received torn-up AARP cards from 60,000 people. And let's say, just for the fun of it, that they proved to Attkisson that they received 60,000 torn-up AARP cards. Is there any reason -- any reason at all -- to think those people actually cancelled their AARP memberships? Because I'm pretty sure simply cutting up your card and mailing it to some third party doesn't cancel your membership.

Sharyl Attkisson
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