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New York Post Columnist’s Claim To Fame Was Having Helped Popularize Mythical Obamacare “Death Panels”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump announced that his campaign was expanding its so-called “economic advisory council” to include New York Post columnist Betsy McCaughey, a serial misinformer with no economic expertise and a long track record of promoting outrageous lies through conservative media.
According to an August 11 press release from the Trump campaign, McCaughey and eight others will join Trump’s team of economic advisers, adding to a group that had been pilloried by journalists and policy experts for initially including no women and only two individuals with more than an undergraduate background in economics. McCaughey, a former one-term lieutenant governor of New York, has no background or experience in economic policy but gained considerable acclaim in conservative media in 2009 when she alleged that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or “Obamacare” would create “death panels” to ration care for sick and elderly patients. PolitiFact awarded the “death panel” charge the inglorious honor of Lie of the Year.
Since sparking the death panel myth in conservative media, McCaughey has been a frequent and outspoken critic of the Obama administration.
McCaughey recently suggested that the United States was “heading into a recession” despite being unable to cite any evidence to back up her claim. She has claimed for years that Obamacare was doomed to fail and could ruin the American economy, only to be proved wrong time and again. In 2014, McCaughey became a go-to expert for right-wing outlets hoping to stoke fear about the spread of Ebola in the United States. She has even attempted to deny the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. She has also never quite given up on her bogus lie that Obamacare would create “death panels” that enforce end-of-life decisions for American citizens. When confronted with her lies on the September 11, 2014, edition of The Daily Show, McCaughey walked off set rather than face further questioning:
New York Post columnist and Donald Trump supporter Betsy McCaughey pointed to findings from Moody’s Analytics to claim that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s economic plan would dampen economic growth and job creation. McCaughey attempted to argue that Trump’s plan would help the economy, but she neglected to mention that Moody’s actually predicted Clinton’s plan would generate millions of new jobs and spur economic growth while Trump’s plan would cost jobs and likely lead to a recession.
In April, Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters released Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. The book lays out the “carefully concealed but ever-growing industry of organized misinformation that exists to create and disseminate lies in the service of political agendas.”
I recently spoke with Rabin-Havt about the group of people -- and their enablers -- feeding false narratives into the media, how we’ve entered an era “where truth doesn’t exist,” and how to fix the problem.
The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The book is titled Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. What does that refer to?
Well it refers to two things. It refers to a group of people who I found in this book are at the center of creating a lot of the lies you see permeating through the conservative media. A group of people who have come up with everything from death panels to the notion that children raised by LGBT couples have worse outcomes than children raised by straight couples. It’s a recognition that a group of people exists to create lies for both ideological and financial profit with the express intent of distorting the public policy process. That’s Lies, Incorporated.
The post-truth refers to the fact that because of this group and because of the media environment that this group feeds off of, we now exist in a world where truth doesn’t exist. Where there’s a truth on the right and a truth on the left, and instead of having debates about issues, we have debates about what is true and what is false, and that’s not a debate that advances us as a country.
And this is a group that not a lot of people realize exists, with an agenda to argue against the facts?
Sometimes a group of people, “experts,” who are paid to create the facts, who are paid to manufacture the facts with the express intent -- and this is what’s interesting -- not of advancing their cause, but of taking us to a draw, keeping us at the status quo. It’s not about advancing an ideology, it’s about keeping everything locked in place.
Because there are certain people who benefit from that, whether it’s a certain political party, or a certain business?
It’s a certain ideology, it’s a certain business, it’s a certain faction, it’s sometimes a group of people. Sometimes the issues are barely connected. A lot of the scientists who worked against the notion that tobacco causes cancer had issues that were completely unrelated. Some were cold warriors who simply believed that any regulation was a step towards communism. One prominent tobacco scientist was a eugenicist who believed that cancer was caused by genetics and therefore couldn’t be caused by tobacco.
The book opens with the story that in 1957 the tobacco industry really started it.
The tobacco industry, they were patient zero here, they really launched this world. What happened is the barons of the tobacco industry met at the Plaza Hotel with John Hill, who was the head of Hill & Knowlton, the legendary public relations firm. John Hill sat them down and said, “You have to stop this advertising that says our cigarettes are the healthiest, you have to cut that out. What we need you to do is start arguing with the science that says cigarettes are unhealthy. And how you do that is we form this Tobacco Industry Research Committee and we do our own science that speaks to our needs.”
What’s interesting is John Hill knew cigarettes are unhealthy. How do we know that? Because John Hill quit smoking prior to this meeting because of its impact on him.
You cover a lot of issues in the book, such as cigarettes, climate change, guns, immigration, and abortion. Which issues among the ones in the book seem to have the biggest offenders?
They’re all very different. The thing I would like to look at is that these lies have an impact on people. We think about death panels for example. This woman, Betsy McCaughey, made up death panels.
That was in the Affordable Care Act debate.
That was horrible, right? But the truth is why it’s horrible is because people aren’t getting insurance today because of that lie. Who isn’t? Well, there was a story in the Washington Post that quoted two women who qualified for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, but weren’t getting it and were paying out of pocket for expensive out-of-pocket costs and when they asked them why, one put her fingers in the shape of a gun and implied that it was death panels.
You cite several conservative outlets from Fox News to The Daily Caller to Breitbart. What is the role that the right-wing media have in spreading these lies?
Some of it is laziness, some of it is people are biased towards lies that conform to their world views and confirm their world views. They make us comfortable, they make us feel good. We go to media that doesn’t educate us, that makes us feel good about living in our own world.
My friend Clay Johnson wrote a book a few years back called The Information Diet. In it, he talks about how pizza tastes better than broccoli. If you had a pizza pie in front of you and a plate of steamed broccoli, which one do you want to eat? Well, 99 percent of people want to eat the pizza. But we know that you can’t just eat pizza, you need to eat your broccoli, too. The fact is, we know that in our food diets. On our information diets, people believe and just ingest only pizza, and that’s part of the problem.
Has that gotten better or worse in recent years?
I think it’s gotten worse. Part of the reason is we have a media structure now where you don’t have to get any information other than the information you want.
Our world now is a world of unlimited bandwidth. Which in the end it is better to have more voices in the process, it’s better to have a world where somebody can create a site like Daily Kos, like Breitbart and rise up based on the ability to attract an audience -- that’s not a bad thing. The question is, if your only source of news is somebody like Breitbart, it’s going to distort your world view.
Why do you think the Lies, Incorporated group has so much success with these right-wing outlets?
Sometimes they work for them. You look at certain right-wing outlets, and you’ll see members of Lies, Incorporated writing and working for them. Sometimes it’s because these liars are spreading lies that conform to that world view. And part of that is, a lot of this world blossomed over the past seven years. In the past seven years, we had a Democrat in the White House who was pushing for change that leaned progressive, which meant the people fighting that change were conservative, which meant Lies, Incorporated, whose goal is to keep the status quo in place, was fighting against that. I think that creates the world that you’re talking about.
How much does the mainstream media enable these lies?
I think they occasionally do. I think some of it is when you have the ‘he said-she said’ version of reporting, it enables the lies. It’s also enabling to the lies to sometimes just broadcast them in general. Putting Betsy McCaughey on TV at all, even if you’re doing it to call her out, enables her lies. The question is, how do you then structure your coverage, and this is part of the solution, is media need to bear responsibility for broadcasting lies and for putting liars on television. And when they do, this will help to start to solve this problem.
You mention false equivalency in the book, in which every story has to have two equal sides.
Sometimes I feel like public policy stories end up getting covered like AP sports stories. An AP sports story has a similar model every time. Two teams played, this was the score, quote from winning team, quote from losing team, close story. When you try to cover public policy that way, you invariably end up injecting lies into the equation.
People can have differences of opinion. We can look at similar data and have a different view on what that data means. That happens all the time. And there should be differences and we should have a debate about those differences. And we should come to the best conclusions. But the data should be the data and should be upheld and truth should be truth and we should hold it up and we shouldn’t allow people to inject lies in just because they’re doing it under the cover of politics.
Which lies are the worst culprits on the false equivalency?
The one that I think rises above all else is climate change, where the false equivalency for years put climate deniers who had no standing in the scientific community at the same level as scientists and in fact advanced some climate deniers further because they weren’t interested in science and accuracy, they were interested in spinning politics.
Why does it still stick when there is overwhelming scientific agreement that there is man-made climate change?
The lies are sticky, when people believe what they believe it is very difficult to convince people to look at truth when they have a firmly held belief in their head.
What is the way to counter this?
Part of it is a media solution, not giving liars a platform to lie and not allowing them to grow in the media. Part of it is making sure there is a transparency in how issues are covered. Part of it is making sure we don’t cover public policy like we’re covering basketball.
If we did those three things alone, it would weaken Lies, Incorporated because the practitioners of Lies, Incorporated are hackers, they’re hackers of our small “d” democratic process.
Hackers exploit weakness in computer systems. These democracy hackers exploit weakness in our media and public policy systems recognizing that they can inject themselves into the debate. Like a patch on a piece of computer software, by closing those loopholes and vulnerabilities, we can shut them out of the system.
How are these liars making money doing this?
Some of it is grant money from conservative institutions, some of it is speaking fees, some of it is writing a best-selling book. Some of it is they hold positions that allow them to make money and do this ideologically. Some of them are independently wealthy.
What is the biggest surprise people might find from the book?
How interconnected this world is. How all these people kind of all come from the same kernel. How all of this is an interconnected web designed to distort democracy. And how we actually, this is going on behind the scenes and how little coverage it gets.
During CNN's February 25 Republican presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) claimed that the Affordable Care Act "is a job-killing law." The assertions by Cruz and Rubio, which fact-checkers called "false" and "hard to square," echoed years of false right-wing media reports that the health care law would kill jobs.
In NY Post Column, Betsy McCaughey Says Obama Has "Appalling Priorities" For Tackling Global Warming
McCaughey's September 7 column, headlined "Wake up, Obama, climate change has been happening forever," claimed that the world has experienced "cyclical swings in climate for thousands of years" and that "[n]o matter what humans do, temperature trends go up, and then down."
But this factually baseless claim contradicts the findings of the hundreds of scientists that comprise the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that fossil fuel emissions are the primary driver for recent global warming. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has explained: "We are dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate the Earth hasn't seen since the great climate catastrophes of the past -- the ones that led to mass extinctions."
McCaughey also denied the overwhelming consensus that humans are driving climate change, claiming that "scientists disagree" about what is driving global warming. She asserted that President Obama sounds "more like an Old Testament doomsayer than a president" for calling for action on climate change.
From her NY Post column:
Wake up, Obama, climate change has been happening forever
President Obama hiked to Exit Glacier in Alaska last week, with photographers in tow, to send the world a message: The glacier is melting.
Obama blames it on the increasing use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, which he wants to restrict not only in the United States but worldwide. The photo op was designed to build support for an international climate agreement he's pushing hard to sell, so far with little success.
Trouble is, the president needs to get his facts straight. Exit Glacier has been shrinking for 200 years -- since 1815 -- long before widespread industrialization and automobiles. As the president ended his trip, he sounded the alarm again: "This state's climate is changing before our eyes."
News flash, Mr. President: Alaska has been buffeted by cyclical swings in climate for thousands of years. That's true for the rest of the world, too. There was a 300-year-long Medieval heat wave, followed by a Little Ice Age that began around 1300, and then the 300-year warming period we're in now.
The Anchorage Daily Times ran a front-page story in 1922 recording the "unheard-of temperatures" in the Arctic and glaciers disappearing. "The Arctic Ocean is warming up and icebergs are growing scarcer."
Oblivious to the history of constant climate change, Obama pointed to Exit Glacier and said: "We want to make sure our grandkids can see this."
He may get his wish, but it won't be because of anything he's doing. The current warming trend appears to be over, speculates Roger Cohen, a fellow of the American Physical Society. The Alaska Climate Research Center reports almost no evidence of warming trends in Alaska since 1977.
Many scientists are predicting the onset of two or three centuries of cooler weather -- which would mean bigger glaciers. That's despite the world's growing use of fossil fuels. No matter what humans do, temperature trends go up, and then down; glaciers expand and then recede; sea levels rise and then fall, explains Will Happer, professor emeritus of physics at Princeton.
That doesn't mean pollution controls are futile. We all want to breathe clean air. But don't blame climate change on humans. There are bigger forces at work here.
Scientists disagree about what these forces are, and are researching better ways of accurately measuring temperature trends via satellite. Amid all this controversy and uncertainty about global climate change, Obama blindly insists that his theory of global warming "is beyond dispute" and attacks his critics as "deniers."
Sounding more like an Old Testament doomsayer than a president, Obama warned in his Alaska speech that unless carbon fuels are restricted, "we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: Submerged countries. Abandoned cities. Fields no longer growing." Sounds scary, but he's on thin ice backing up those predictions.
Despite Obama's professed concern for the people of Alaska affected by climate change, his visit was more about theatrics than helping locals. Alaska's Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski lambasted Obama's job-killing new restrictions on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. Obama says the region's "very fragile," but Murkowski is more worried that the economy is fragile. "It's clear this administration does not care about us and sees us as nothing but a territory," she said.
It's a demonstration of Obama's appalling lack of priorities. The president told his Alaska audience that "few things will disrupt our lives as profoundly as climate change." Really, Mr. President? How about the epidemic of cop shootings in the United States, or the drowned toddlers washing up on Mediterranean shores as families flee the Middle East, or ISIS beheading thousands of Christians?
Obama says that with climate change, more than any other issue, "there is such a thing as being too late." Tell that to a cop's widow or the father who watched his family drown.
Right-wing media continue to push the myth that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) contains a "death panel" provision, and years after the birth of this smear, it continues to have an impact on public perception and find its way into Republican legislation.
When the House first introduced the health care bill that would eventually become the ACA in 2009, serial health care misinformer Betsy McCaughey falsely claimed the bill would "require" end-of-life counseling for seniors to "tell them how to end their life sooner." The baseless claim was later amplified by Sarah Palin and the notion quickly gained steam as the right-wing media echo-chamber championed the idea.
Despite being conclusively debunked as Politifact's "lie of the year" in 2009, conservative media still persist in trumpeting the death panel lie. In 2014, Fox News' Eric Bolling compared the Veteran Affairs health care system to the ACA, citing them as examples of "a big, bureaucratic, government-run health care system." He concluded, "whether you believe it or not, Sarah Palin and a couple other people on the right said there will be death panels. There will be people deciding who gets what treatment and when and that's just gonna put long waiting lines on certain types of treatment. Well, if the VA isn't proving that right now, nothing is." Rush Limbaugh, Fox's Sean Hannity, and other conservative media outlets trotted out the death panel lie last year as well, in the midst of good news about enrollment and reductions in the nation's rate of uninsured people.
The death panel falsehood is still reflected in both the public's perception of the health care law as well as the Republican legislative agenda. As Sarah Kliff explained in a March 23 post for Vox, 26 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats still agree that "a government panel helps make decisions about patients' end-of-life care" is "part of the law."
The myth even continues to make its way into GOP legislation critical of the health care law. The Washington Post's Stephen Stromberg noted in a March 22 post that despite having been debunked, "the GOP's death-panel nonsense still has hold on the party" and was "written explicitly" into the House GOP's 2016 budget proposal:
Experts and professional fact-checkers have debunked the notion that the Affordable Care Act would empower a faceless government board to deny critical health-care procedures, the Obama-era equivalent of pushing inconvenient seniors onto ice floes. But the GOP's death-panel nonsense still has a hold on the party, its illogic written explicitly into the House's budget.
"This budget repeals the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), an unelected, unaccountable board of 15 bureaucrats charged with making coverage decisions on Medicare," the document reads.
According to the Urban Institute, 8.2 million Americans, disproportionately women and children, may become uninsured as a consequence of King v. Burwell. But for right-wing media, pointing out the dangerous consequences of the loss of health care subsidies is nothing more than a "scare tactic."
Conservative media issued catastrophic predictions and myths about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2014, despite ample evidence that the health care law is working. Media Matters looks back at six claims about Obamacare that didn't pan out for the right-wing media this year.
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Fox News pivoted its stance on the public health threat posed by Ebola after leading the charge in media stoking fears about the disease in the weeks prior to the midterm elections. The network is now downplaying the urgency of increasing funding for Ebola research and relief efforts while criticizing President Obama's request of a multi-billion dollar Ebola emergency appropriation from Congress.
McCaughey Pushed PolitiFact's 2009 Lie Of The Year That ACA Included Death Panels
Right-wing media outlets have turned to serial misinformer Betsy McCaughey as their go-to expert on the Ebola outbreak. But McCaughey has a history of hyping false health care myths and was the chief architect behind the myth that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) included so-called "death panels," a discredited claim that McCaughey pushed even after being dubbed PolitiFact's Lie of the Year in 2009.