The coverage of the Affordable Care Act's troubled rollout has been marked by a spate of overheated and sensationalist health plan "cancellation" stories spotlighting consumers who have been told by their insurance companies that they're being moved to more expensive plans. In most cases these stories rely on a lack of context and withhold key details about how these consumers can potentially benefit under the law. They also demonstrate a worrying lack of skepticism towards the behavior of the insurance companies.
The latest example comes from the New York Times, which reports on three average Americans who are being "forced out of their existing health insurance plans" as the ACA takes effect. "One expects to pay more. One expects to pay less. And one is just trying to figure it all out," the Times reports. At first glance it looks like a neat cover-all-the-angles trifecta. When you dig a little deeper into the article, though, some warning signs start flashing.
The person who expects to pay more is Charles Nance, a 57-year-old "home inspector in suburban St. Louis." Nance was informed by his current insurer, Anthem BlueCross BlueShield, that his current plan is being dropped because it doesn't comply with the ACA's minimum standards, so the company was going to sign him up for a considerably more expensive plan "that would cost twice as much" per month in premiums.
That sounds pretty bad! But then a few more details creep in, buried at the end of the article. "He said he does not qualify for federal subsidies," the Times reported on Mr. Nance, "and has had difficulty signing onto the online marketplace to evaluate his options." And then there's this: "For now, he has purchased a one-year plan through United Healthcare that is similar in price and features to his existing plan." He "expects to pay more," but he's already found another plan "that is similar in price and features"? So he's not actually paying more. He just expects to pay more under the ACA, even though he hasn't been able to actually evaluate the options available to him under the law.
The Los Angeles Times recently announced it does not publish Letters to the Editor that deny man's role in climate change, but most major newspapers are not following suit. A study from Media Matters found that 14 letters that deny manmade climate change have been printed in The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, The Washington Post and The New York Times so far in 2013.
In the week following the end of the 16-day government shutdown, major print media outlets shifted their attention to upcoming bipartisan budget negotiations. This coverage of budget priorities was far more likely to mention the need for deficit and debt reduction than economic growth and job creation, despite economists warning that growth is the more pressing concern.
The New York Times indicated that it will take steps to more accurately present numbers-based stories, a change that will ensure readers are better informed on economic issues.
In an October 18 post, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan addressed growing concerns that the outlet relies too heavily on reporting numbers-based stories in terms of raw figures. According to Sullivan:
Many readers have written to me recently, given the federal budget crisis, to make a simple request: Please advocate for news stories that put large numbers in context. If The Times does not do that, they say, it is part of the problem, and if it does do so, other news organizations are very likely to follow suit.
Sullivan explained that she met with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt to discuss ways in which the Times can direct its reporters to provide relevant context when writing about large numbers, such as the federal budget or national debt.
The Times' decision to begin providing context for large numbers is a welcome change. According to a Media Matters' analysis of major print outlets over the first half of 2013, the paper largely failed to provide relevant context -- such as comparable numbers or addressing figures in percentage terms -- when reporting economic data. The paper failed to provide context in 67 percent of articles that mentioned economic data.*
Many economists have noted concerns over reporting very large economic numbers without relevant context, claiming that it often amounts to little more than scare tactics used to stoke fears about the size of the national debt and deficits. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has led the charge against this type of unintentionally misleading reporting, noting that the overreliance on very large raw numbers also increases the likelihood that they will be misreported. Leonhardt acknowledges that pressure to change their economic reporting came from "the left," but explains that it's not a partisan issue:
And while he noted that the recent pressure for change is "coming from the left," specifically the economist-writer Dean Baker and MoveOn.org - which now has more than 18,000 signatures on a petition -- this is not a partisan issue.
"Math has neither a conservative nor a liberal bias," Mr. Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt explained that it is difficult for readers to conceptualize large numbers such as the the dollar amount of the national debt. Additionally, Leonhardt admitted that even he confused the distinction between millions and billions of dollars when reporting a large figure on the front page of the paper.
The Times' move away from relying on raw numbers could go a long way in educating the public about economic issues. Polls consistently show that voters are generally unaware of the size and scope of federal programs, perhaps in part because news outlets rarely put the numbers in context.
According to Sullivan and Leonhardt, directives may take the form of new stylebook guidelines or staff-wide emails, and will be "determined within a couple of months."
*updated for clarity
The founder of the Weather Channel, now a local weatherman on a San Diego television station, dedicated nearly half an hour to climate change misinformation, including claiming that there are more polar bears because "Eskimos ... have now become more civilized."
John Coleman, who is a weatherman for the independent news station KUSI News after being "forced" out of the Weather Channel, said in a segment on climate change this week that polar bear populations have increased because "the Eskimos no longer kill the polar bears for the meat and furs in order to stay alive, it's -- we have now become more civilized in our Eskimo populations around the poles."
In fact, the majority of polar bear populations for which there are sufficient data are declining. Those population levels are somewhat higher than in the 1970s thanks to a ban on polar bear hunting with limited exceptions for traditional hunting by Inuit populations. However, despite conservative media claims to the contrary, this recovery in no way negates the ongoing existential threat that global warming poses to polar bear populations.
In the segment, Coleman -- who has accused NASA climate researchers of "lying" about temperature records -- hosted four paid associates of the Heartland Institute, which has received funding from the fossil fuel industry and once compared those who accept climate science to the "Unabomber." Coleman called Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast, who claimed in the 1990s that moderate smoking has "few, if any, adverse health effects" while simultaneously receiving money from tobacco giants Philip Morris, "a hero of mine."
USA TODAY became the latest mainstream newspaper to incorrectly "balance" the views of the hundreds of scientists behind a major climate report with the the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel-funded organization that once compared those who accept climate science to the "Unabomber." In an op-ed published by the newspaper Tuesday, the head of the organization portrayed outright falsehoods as simply "opinion" in order to dismiss the United Nations panel behind the report as a "discredited oracle."
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), which convenes hundreds of top climate experts from around the world to assess the scientific understanding of climate change, stated in its most recent report that scientists are 95 percent certain that the majority of recent warming is manmade, or about as certain as they are that cigarettes kill. This is an increase from just over 50 percent certainty in 1995, and 66 percent certainty in 2001. Yet the head of the Heartland Institute, Joseph Bast, counterfactually suggested in USA TODAY that "we are no more certain about the impact of man-made greenhouse gases than we were in 1990, or even in 1979."
Bast also falsely claimed that the IPCC "admits, but does not explain, why no warming has occurred for the past 15 years." It would be one thing for Bast to claim that he is not convinced by the IPCC's explanation that that the slightly slower rate of atmospheric warming in the last 15 years was likely due to the ocean absorbing much of recent heat, along with other natural factors such as volcanic eruptions. But Bast simply pretended that this explanation does not exist so that he could cling to the myth that short-term variability rebuts the idea of a long-term greenhouse gas signal.
A recent study by Media Matters found that The Washington Post and Bloomberg News also turned to Bast, making him one of the most frequently quoted climate doubters in IPCC coverage. The New York Times quoted a report backed by the Heartland Institute. None of these newspapers disclosed that Heartland has recently received funding from the Charles Koch Foundation, backed by the CEO of a corporation with major oil interests, and received funding from ExxonMobil from 1998 to 2006. Nor did they mention factors that might help readers assess the credibility of the Heartland Institute, including that in 2012 the group launched a billboard campaign associating "belief" in global warming with murderers such as Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," which they discontinued after backlash from many of their own donors but refused to apologize for.
News coverage of the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis has prompted widespread criticism about how Beltway journalists unnecessarily include Democrats when assigning blame for a shutdown strategy that has been methodically plotted by extremist Republicans for months; a strategy built around making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for Republican votes for a policy they say they already support.
Eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are responsible for sparking conflict, the press effectively gives Republicans a pass for adopting truly outside-the-norm behavior, such as when senators suggest the United States defaulting on its debt is not cause for concern.
But both-sides-to-blame reporting is really just the public symptom of a larger media malady; the refusal to acknowledge the proud extremism of today's Republican Party. Both-sides-to-blame analysis is a fallback position. It's a soft landing spot for journalists who aren't confident enough to accurately report what's unfolding politically.
The signs of radical change are everywhere inside the Republican Party. The change is being driven by a group of hardcore members and their attempt to grind Obama's presidency, and the federal government, to a halt by refusing to not only compromise with Democrats, but refusing to even speak to them about the federal budget. They include members with an almost evangelical fervor for defaulting on the debt ceiling and who describe it as their defining "Braveheart" moment; their chance to do something "big." They're extremists trying to make governing impossible via procedural sabotage.
Yet many reporters and pundits remain blind to the obvious GOP transformation, or are too timid to spell out the details for news consumers.
As irresponsible Republicans in the House detonate one blockbuster crisis after another, it's becoming clear that the press doesn't know how to deal with this; that it doesn't have the right tools for the job. Most journalists have never seen anything quite like the purposeful dysfunction and chaos that Republicans have plotted, and therefore remain timid and unsure about acknowledging what's really happening.
So instead of clarity, we get the endless regurgitation about how the nation's capital has been paralyzed by a "partisan logjam" (Wall Street Journal), and suffering from "an inability to come together" (NPR contributor Cokie Roberts). See? Both sides are to blame.
On October 15, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case that challenges a 2006 ballot initiative in Michigan that amended the state's constitution to prevent state universities from using race or sex as one of many equal factors in admissions. Although proponents of what was formerly known as Proposal 2 say this resulting affirmative action ban is consistent with the law, it appears to be specifically prohibited by the "political restructuring" doctrine of the Supreme Court.
According to press accounts, one of the universal truths about the current government shutdown is that more Republican members of the House have adopted increasingly brazen political strategies because they're elected from safe districts.
Due to the growing polarization of American politics and its voting patterns (along with gerrymandering), Tea Party-aligned Republicans from deeply red districts have embraced unorthodox behavior and unprecedented strategies because local voters staunchly support them even if their agenda is unpopular nationwide. It's that electoral freedom that's produced a new breed of Republican congressmen and women, according to this press telling.
That storyline is deeply flawed, however. It leaves out crucial context, like the simple fact that for decades a huge number of congressional Democrats have enjoyed safe seats. Yet they never equated comfortable victory margins with permission to adopt the extremist measures now displayed by Republicans as they provoke crisis after crisis. The safe seat spin also gives Republicans a pass as they continue to steer the country towards dangerous territory.
Still, that narrative remains a constant.
Explaining the disconnect between the public dismay over the shutdown and stubbornness displayed by GOP politicians, political scientist Larry Sabato told CBS News, "The vast majority are in heavily Republican districts, so general public opinion may be completely against them, but this is actually good for them."
The New York Times explained Republicans face "little personal political risk" for backing the extreme measure of shutting down the government, "because they are elected in overwhelmingly Republican districts." And the New York Post announced that "Until a sufficient number of Republicans start fearing that the blowback threatens their own political skins, the shutdown won't get solved."
Over and over, this account has been embraced by reporters and commentators as they try to explain the increasingly radical, hostage-taking behavior of Republicans who have already forced a government shutdown and who are now threatening to allow the United States to default on its debts; a move that could cause catastrophic damage to the global economy.
Media message: If politicians don't have to worry about re-election, naturally they're going to act more extreme.
Journalists seem to like the 'safe seat' explanation because on the surface it appears to make sense,. (Oh, that's why Republicans are acting so outlandishly.) And journalists also seem to be searching for a quasi-rational explanation or justification for why Republican anarchists in the House are behaving the way they are. But that's the wrong way to approach the story.
Glenn Beck sat down with the New York Times Magazine for an interview about his plans for a new media empire, and did what he usually does when talking to mainstream press outlets: he dropped his flamethrowing, end-times routine and adopted the posture of an ambitious, misunderstood entrepreneur. Beck wants to reach a larger audience and doesn't want to freak out Times readers, so when the Times asked him about the political focus of his show, Beck tried to come off as reasonable. "What people don't ever understand is this: I'm the guy who lives in Dallas who did not get an invitation to the George Bush Presidential Library opening," Beck said. "He didn't like me. I had called for his impeachment. I didn't call for Obama's impeachment. People think I just hate this president. No, I hate power and those who do everything they can to hold onto it."
It's simply not true that Beck "didn't call for Obama's impeachment." Back in May, as the political media were obsessing over Benghazi hearings and the since-deflated IRS scandal, Beck called for a special counsel to be appointed to "explore the impeachment of this president." In April, after Beck led the reprehensible effort to link an innocent Saudi man to the Boston marathon bombings, Beck said that Americans should "demand impeachment" because, in his view, the government was covering up the Saudi's non-existent role in the attack. If Americans didn't do so, Beck said, "we don't stand a chance."
At a Tea Party rally in June at the Capitol, Beck was asked about impeachment, and he said that impeaching Obama wouldn't go far enough. "If they can take it to impeachment -- I personally think there's a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who shouldn't be impeached, they should go to jail," Beck said. Asked if Obama was one of them, Beck replied: "Yeah."
Again, this is the Beck routine. When he's talking to his usual audience or the Tea Party faithful, he's calling for impeachment and inveighing against progressives with the most inflammatory language he can muster. When he's talking to The New York Times, he says things like this:
Can we stop dividing ourselves? Do racists exist? Yes. Do bigots exist? Yes. But most of us are not. Most Americans just want to get along. Why can't we do that? What has happened to us?
Funnily enough, the Times interviewer later asked Beck about his commitment to "hunt down progressives like an Israeli Nazi hunter," and Beck -- mere moments after bemoaning the instinct to "divide ourselves" -- briefly reverted to type: "Oh, I will. I think these guys are the biggest danger in the world. It's the people like Mao, people that believe that big government is the answer, it always leads to millions dead -- always."
The front page of The New York Times created a false choice between being patriotic and voicing skepticism of military force, pairing reports that residents of a town in Pennsylvania are opposed to military action in Syria with the headline "Proudly Patriotic But Skeptical On Syria Attack."
There is no inherent tension between skepticism of military action and patriotism. Any perception that questioning the use of military force raises questions about a skeptic's patriotism only exists because outlets like The New York Times create it.
The report itself details myriad reasons that residents in a southwestern Pennsylvanian town remain skeptical of the wisdom of intervention in Syria, contrasting that with overwhelming support among residents for military action in Iraq 11 years ago:
As President Obama tries to rally domestic support for military action against Syria, the skepticism in Waynesburg only underscores the political hurdles he faces. This bucolic, if fading, corner of southwest Pennsylvania wears its patriotism on its sleeve, shirttail and pockets. At the time of Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, a Quinnipiac University poll in Pennsylvania found that 86 percent of the voters in and around Waynesburg were solidly behind him.
But in myriad ways, the calculus has changed. Some say they now believe that domestic needs neglected during a decade of war override foreign imperatives. Some, reviewing years of pitched struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq, see the Middle East as quicksand that must be avoided at all costs. Some say that Syria's civil war is Syria's problem, and that the United States is not the Mr. Fix-it for all of the world's crises.
And here, at least, more than a few see military action against Syria as unacceptable simply because it is Mr. Obama's idea.
Regardless of whether the answers to any of these questions lead to a decision to support military action or to oppose it, asking them says nothing about patriotism. And The New York Times, of all places, should know that.
More than a decade ago, skeptics were silenced during the run-up to the Iraq War. That example has led voices including that of Colin Powell to say that skepticism is necessary when considering the merits of military action. A lack of skepticism was central to The New York Times' own much discussed failures during the march to war in 2002-2003. In a 2011 column, Bill Keller, the editor of the Times during the Iraq War debate, wrote:
I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something -- to prove something -- was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism.
As Americans again debate the wisdom of using military force to intervene in a foreign country, there is little value in creating a false choice between patriotism and skepticism.
News outlets who continue to refer to U.S. Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning, who formerly went by the name Bradley, using masculine pronouns after she announced that she identifies as female this week are drawing criticism from transgender advocates, raising the issue of how such news subjects should be covered.
Manning, who on August 21 was found guilty of crimes related to giving classified documents to Wikileaks, on August 22 released a statement through her lawyer which said in part: "As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female." Manning requested that "starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun."
In response, the GLAAD and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association each issued statements informing media outlets that they should use the name and pronouns that Manning prefers. But many media outlets have continued to refer to Manning as "Bradley" and describe her using male pronouns.
Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the GLAAD, specifically singled out the Associated Press and Reuters, saying the group had reached out to these two news organizations and requested a correction in their approach going forward.
"Today our focus is on reaching out to them and asking for corrections," Ferraro said of A.P. and Reuters.
Ferraro also pointed out that he believes the AP had violated its own policy that states when reporting on transgender news subjects, "use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth."
AP and Reuters have not yet responded to requests for comment, but AP posted a statement on its website that said the service "will use gender-neutral references to Manning and provide the pertinent background on the transgender issue. However, when reporting is completed, the AP Stylebook entry on 'transgender' will be AP's guide."
The AP, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post on Thursday referred to Manning with a male pronoun throughout stories about her announcement Thursday morning that she wished to be identified as a woman and had wished to be called Chelsea, not Bradley.
"We would probably criticize the media overall," Ferraro said when asked about GLAAD's reaction to such references. "Chelsea Manning's announcement today and subsequent media judgment reflects a lack of education on covering transgender people. Media today should respect Chelsea Manning's announcement and that includes using female pronouns when speaking about her and that includes referring to her as Chelsea."
The New York Times coverage of the 2008 presidential race was "decidedly stereotypical," according to a new study, whose author fears a similar "gendered agenda" may occur in the 2016 race.
"At the aggregate level, what I found was that Clinton's gender was mentioned much more so than her male competitors and that she also received less issue coverage than her male competitors," said Lindsey Meeks, whose study appears in the September 2013 issue of the Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly.
Meeks is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington's Department of Communications whose area of specialty includes how the news media covers the gender of political candidates.
For the peer-reviewed study, Meeks performed a content analysis of a random sampling of New York Times coverage of Hillary Clinton from her official candidate announcement in January 2007 to her formal withdrawal in June 2008, as well as a random sampling of the Times' coverage of Sarah Palin from the announcement of her nomination for the vice presidency through Election Day.
Articles were coded for whether they used gender labels like "husband" or "mother" to describe Clinton, Palin, or their male opponents; whether the articles mentioned their positions on so-called "feminine" issues such as health care, education, women's rights, reproductive rights, and social welfare and "masculine" issues that included military/defense, crime, economy, and foreign policy; and whether the Times applied to each candidate character traits that are seen as "feminine," such as compassion, emotionality, honesty, altruism, and congeniality, or "masculine," such as strength, independence, aggressiveness, and confidence.
The University of Washington study discovered that the Times applied gender labels 6.5 percent more often to Clinton than to male candidates. It also said Clinton received significantly more gender label coverage than Barack Obama and John McCain. "Notably, the Times provided similar volumes of gender coverage for Clinton and Palin, 17.5% and 18.8%, respectively," the report said. "Thus, despite running for different offices, their gender was emphasized similarly."
Meeks concluded from the data that the Times was "upholding the news norm of focusing on how women are deviant in politics" and that while the emphasis "could be interpreted positively... news coverage of women's gender often sets a more negative tone and communicates to readers that women simply do not fit."
The report noted that the Times emphasized "masculine" issue coverage anywhere from two-and-a-half to five times more than "feminine" issue coverage. It added that "the most dramatic shift was for masculine issue coverage: from the first month to the rest of the election, Times masculine issue coverage of Clinton dropped in half, from approximately 58% to 28%."
Meeks writes that the focus on "masculine" issue coverage overall may have disadvantaged Clinton, stating that "the lower coverage of feminine content could have detrimental effects on women politicians' chances." She also points out that "skewing toward masculinity in news, coupled with the gender stereotypes found in society, can create a stereotyping cycle" that strengthens gender barriers for women.
The study also found that while Clinton and Palinreceived often contrasting tonal coverage, they received similar amounts of "masculine" and "feminine" trait coverage:
Clinton and Palin were very different. Clinton was seen as cold, calculating, and overly ambitious, whereas Palin was perceived as a concerned "hockey mom," known for her down-home, folksy mannerisms. Yet the Times gave these women virtually the same amount of feminine and masculine trait coverage. This suggests that no matter how different two women may be or how hard they try to portray themselves as distinctive, the press will most likely cast them in a similar mold.
From the August 21 edition of MSNBC's Jansing & Co.:
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I am writing to express my concern about a recent string of reports and columns from your publication that have done nothing but use false pretenses to cast a shadow on Bill and Hillary Clinton. It says a lot that Rush Limbaugh applauded your "injurious" work on the former first family yesterday afternoon on his radio program. This recent pattern is all the more worrisome in light of your political editor's decision to assign a reporter to cover Hillary Clinton, now a private citizen with no announced political plans, more than three years before the next presidential election.
To begin, your August 13th report that claimed to expose the "unease" over finances and management at the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation was an exercise in evidence-free speculation. On August 16th, the former president and the Foundation corrected the record, explaining that your reporters failed to provide critical context and facts essential to the story and misconstrued the Foundation's lawful accounting. More specifically:
While the Times stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the errors in its reporting and President Clinton's statement in a follow-up story, an editorial clarification, or even a mention by the paper's ombudsman, that ombudsman published an August 17th article describing the "potential benefits and the possible pitfalls" of assigning a reporter to a full-time beat on the former secretary of state. Most troubling was Political Editor Carolyn Ryan's reasoning for the assignment - "there is a certain opacity and stagecraft" surrounding the Clintons, she said, wrongly implying that they purposely misled the public with no evidence.
Another cause for concern is two recent columns from Maureen Dowd that reinforce her long pattern of using hollow caricatures to attack the Clintons (and the former first family in general). On July 31st, she compared Clinton to Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, marking the fifth time she has used the inapt literary analogy against Hillary Clinton. And just this past Sunday, she compared the Clintons to Wile E. Coyote. Clark Hoyt in 2008 called out Dowd's "gender-laden assault on Clinton" and others of the same stature have taken notice. Despite criticism from her colleagues, Dowd's invective against the Clintons ensues.
These recent developments raise the question of whether what we are seeing is an anti-Clinton institutional bias at the Times. Rush Limbaugh certainly seems to think so. I hope this is not the case.
We respectfully ask that you:
1. Correct the record regarding errors of fact and context in the Foundation news story;
2. Refrain from negatively pre-judging the Clintons in the manner of your political editor;
3. Correct the anti-Clinton animus consistently exhibited by one of your columnists; and
4. Resist the temptation to create purely speculative news in your new Clinton "beat."
Chairman, Media Matters for America