W]hen it came to the ''death panels,'' The Washington Post's influential media reporter, Howard Kurtz, observed: ''For once, mainstream journalists did not retreat to the studied neutrality of quoting dueling antagonists.'' Reporters took the additional step of pointing out, on their own authority, that the proposals don't contain any such provision. To ''he said, she said,'' was added: ''we say.''
Trouble is, it hasn't really mattered. Even though news organizations debunked the claim, 45 percent of respondents to an NBC poll still believe the reforms would indeed allow the federal government to halt treatment to the elderly -- a staggering number.
Why? Maybe because, by Kurtz's count, Palin's ''death panels'' were mentioned 18 times by his own paper, 16 times in The New York Times and at least 154 times on cable and network news (not including daytime news shows.)
Plainly, refuting a falsehood doesn't keep it from doing harm. The solution isn't some cheap fix, first giving end-of-the-world play to some incendiary fantasy and then inserting a line that says the preceding was utter rubbish. The real problem goes to the core of traditional news practices. As Greg Marx noted in a sensible Columbia Journalism Review posting, the solution is ''making a more concerted effort not to disseminate false or dubious claims in the first place.''
As the saying goes, what really matters isn't what people think, it's what they think about: Debunking falsehoods is fine, but the more that news media embrace it as if it's a cure-all, the worse we'll all be. The solution isn't to refute, it's to ignore. End the practice of rewarding the most sensational, the most irresponsible, the most baseless allegations with top-of-the-news billing. The media bury worthwhile news all the time; how about burying the worthless stuff?
Wasserman makes an important point: As bad as the media's handling of misinformation about health care has been, the bigger problem is that they've done a lousy job of telling readers and viewers what is true. By not focusing -- repeatedly and clearly -- on the central facts about health care reform, they guarantee that the falsehoods will be what people think about.
Telling the truth requires more than telling people what the lies are.