Health Care Misinformer of the Year: Betsy McCaughey

Media Matters for America presents its first-ever Health Care Misinformer of the Year award to Betsy McCaughey.

The debate over health care reform has dominated much of the media spotlight this year, and the conservative media have responded with a wide array of falsehoods and distortions aimed at twisting the debate and stopping progressive policies from being enacted. From Fox News host Sean Hannity's repeated cries that progressive plans are "socialized medicine" to The Wall Street Journal's falsehood-laden crusade against health reform, there has been no shortage of misinformation purveyors attempting to get in on the action.

But there has been one misinformer who outshines them all, relentlessly attacking health care reform by spreading falsehoods and distortions through opinion pieces and television appearances at nearly every stage of the debate. This individual is noteworthy not only for her prolificacy, but because of the broad extent to which her outlandish claims about health legislation have reverberated throughout the conservative media echo chamber.

As Media Matters for America senior fellow Jamison Foser pointed out, what is most problematic about this individual is not simply her false and misleading claims, but that despite her consistent pattern of promoting falsehoods, the media continue to provide her with a platform -- and a veneer of legitimacy. Most notably, Rupert Murdoch-owned papers The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post have repeatedly provided her space on their op-ed pages, and Murdoch's Fox News Channel has repeatedly hosted her and advanced her claims. As The Atlantic's James Fallows has noted, she is an example of someone for whom there “seems to be almost no extremity of being proven wrong which disqualifies” her from being given a platform in the media. Indeed, the media's willingness to treat her as if she were a legitimate policy expert has continued even after she has backtracked on many of her claims after they were debunked.

Moreover, media covering the 2009 health care reform debate should have been aware that she was not a reliable source, given that she spent the last major health care policy debate similarly advancing falsehoods aimed at obstructing reform. As Fallows noted, "[i]n the early 1990s [she] single-handedly did a phenomenal amount to distort discussion of health-care policy and derail the Clinton health bill ... through an entirely fictitious argument about what the bill would do." For these reasons, Media Matters' debunking of this serial health care misinformer's claims is equally an indictment of the media that enable her.

Without further ado, Media Matters presents its first-ever Health Care Misinformer of the Year award to Betsy McCaughey.

McCaughey cooks up falsehood that recovery act puts government bureaucrats between you and your doctor

False claim: Recovery bill provides for government bureaucrats to “monitor treatments,” control practice of medicine. In a February 9 Bloomberg commentary, McCaughey concocted the false claim that a health information technology provision in the economic recovery act enabled government bureaucrats to “monitor treatments” and restrict what “your doctor is doing” with regard to patient care. As Media Matters documented, in her “commentary,” McCaughey distorted a section of the House-passed version of the recovery bill to claim that "[o]ne new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective. The goal is to reduce costs and 'guide' your doctor's decisions." In fact, the language in the House bill that McCaughey referenced -- which is unchanged in the final act -- does not establish authority to “monitor treatments” or restrict what “your doctor is doing” with regard to patient care; rather, it addresses establishing an electronic records system such that doctors would have complete, accurate information about their patients “to help guide medical decisions at the time and place of care.”

Impact: Claim reverberated throughout conservative media echo chamber. Despite the fact that McCaughey's claim is demonstrably false, it nonetheless was widely repeated in the media. Her commentary was first picked up by Rush Limbaugh, then trumpeted by Internet gossip Matt Drudge. The falsehood jumped to Fox News, where it was promoted by co-anchors Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly and guest and Wall Street Journal senior economic writer Stephen Moore, and was then again touted by Limbaugh. The false claim subsequently was repeated or promoted by then-CNN host Lou Dobbs and Fox News host Glenn Beck, who each hosted McCaughey; syndicated columnist Ann Coulter;'s Ed O'Keefe; and Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Backtrack: Legislation is vague enough to allow it to happen in the future. CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reported during the February 11 edition of CNN Newsroom, “I had a PDF of the bill up on my computer. I said [to McCaughey], 'Show me where in the bill it says that this bill is going to have the government telling your doctor what to do.' And she directed me to language -- it didn't actually say that. But she said that it was vague enough that it would allow for that to happen in the future.” Cohen added, “Now when we asked the folks who wrote this bill, 'Hey, is this bill going to allow the government to tell doctors what to do?' they used words like, 'preposterous' and 'completely and wildly untrue.' ” Still, McCaughey asserted as recently as October 5 that her claims about the health IT provision in the stimulus were correct by mischaracterizing a statement by Obama appointee Dr. David Blumenthal to claim that he has “settled that debate” in her favor.

McCaughey ignites firestorm with false claim that House bill will promote euthanasia of seniors

False claim: House bill's end-of-life counseling provision is “mandatory.” First in a July 16 radio interview on The Fred Thomson Show, and subsequently in op-eds in both the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, McCaughey falsely claimed that the House tri-committee health care reform bill's end-of-life counseling provision would “absolutely require” end-of-life counseling for seniors “that will tell them how to end their life sooner.” But McCaughey's claim is false; the section of the bill to which she referred simply amends the Social Security Act to ensure that advance care planning will be covered under Medicare if a patient requests it from a qualified care provider. According to an analysis of the bill produced by the three relevant House committees, the section "[p]rovides coverage for consultation between enrollees and practitioners to discuss orders for life-sustaining treatment" and "[i]nstructs CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] to modify 'Medicare & You' handbook to incorporate information on end-of-life planning resources and to incorporate measures on advance care planning into the physician's quality reporting initiative." Indeed, Media Matters documented that by mid-August, the media had debunked McCaughey's claim -- as well as Sarah Palin's subsequent charge that the bill would create a “death panel” for which a Palin spokesperson cited the same House bill passage McCaughey previously distorted -- more than 40 times over.

Impact: End-of-life counseling claim ignited right-wing media firestorm. McCaughey's false claim about the House bill's end-of-life counseling provision rapidly spread through the conservative media. As Media Matters extensively documented, her claim was immediately picked up by Fox News host and radio talk show host Sean Hannity, as well as conservative talk radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, among others. After PolitiFact debunked the claim, giving it a "Pants on Fire" status, conservative media figures and outlets -- including Hannity, Fox News legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr., and The Washington Times -- continued to forward the falsehood. Further, even after McCaughey herself backtracked on the claim, numerous media figures promoted the falsehood, including Washington Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York, MSNBC contributor Pat Buchanan, and talk radio host Lou Dobbs, as well as Hannity and Limbaugh.

Backtrack: Bill makes counseling mandatory “in so many words.” According to a July 28 Politico article, when asked about criticism of her claim that the bill makes counseling “mandatory,” McCaughey claimed that she was right about the effect (if not the literal wording) of the legislation. McCaughey stated that "[i]n so many words" the bill would make end-of-life counseling mandatory because “although it is presented in the bill as a Medicare service, when a doctor or a nurse approaches an elderly person who is in poor health, facing a decline in health, and raises these issues, it is not offering a service. It is pressuring them.”

McCaughey launches false attacks against “Health Rationer-in-Chief” Ezekiel Emanuel

False claim: Emanuel said that “we're going to have to push doctors to eliminate the Hippocratic Oath.” During a May 11 appearance on Fox Business' Cavuto, McCaughey purported to read an unidentified statement from White House health care policy adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, which she described as “very disturbing to patients.” Of the comments, she claimed that Emanuel “said if you want to save money in health care, we're going to have to push doctors to eliminate the Hippocratic Oath and give more attention to costs when they're treating a patient.” But contrary to McCaughey's claim, in his June 18, 2008, Journal of the American Medical Association commentary, in which Emanuel made remarks similar to those that McCaughey cited, Emanuel did not call for “eliminat[ing] the Hippocratic Oath,” but wrote that the culture of health care “overuse” has led physicians to interpret the Hippocratic Oath “as an imperative to do everything for the patient regardless of cost or effect on others.”

Backtrack: McCaughey later claimed Emanuel believes reform must include “redefining” the Hippocratic Oath. In an August 27 Wall Street Journal column, McCaughey softened her prior claim about Emanuel, asserting that he believes reform must include “redefining” the Hippocratic Oath -- a step back from her earlier claim that he wanted to “eliminate” the oath. Still, she falsely claimed that “Emanuel blames the Hippocratic Oath for the 'overuse' of medical care,” a statement at odds with his June 18, 2008 JAMA piece, as noted above. She repeated that falsehood in an October 5 New York Post op-ed.

Following backtrack, McCaughey cropped, misrepresented other remarks by Emanuel. In the same August 27 Wall Street Journal column in which she backpedaled from her Hippocratic Oath claim, McCaughey distorted various passages of Emanuel's writings and interviews by cropping and misrepresenting his remarks -- some of which The New York Times had described in context only days earlier in an article criticizing McCaughey for "[l]argely quoting his past writings out of context." For instance, she selectively quoted his September 19, 2002, New England Journal of Medicine book review as well as an August 16 Washington Post interview with Ezra Klein to smear him as “Obama's Health Rationer-in-Chief.”

False claims continue: McCaughey spreads misinformation about recent versions of House, Senate health bills

McCaughey, on eve of House vote, spewed falsehoods about the bill. In a November 7 Wall Street Journal op-ed, McCaughey distorted numerous provisions of the House health care reform bill slated for a vote that day. For instance, she claimed that the bill “says that when you file your taxes, you must include proof that you are in a qualified plan. If not, you will be fined thousands of dollars. Illegal immigrants are exempt from this requirement.” In fact, the bill exempts “nonresident aliens,” not “illegal immigrants,” which are not equivalent terms. Additionally, she claimed that the bill “says that the results of comparative effectiveness research conducted by the government will be delivered to doctors electronically to guide their use of 'medical items and services.'” Contrary to her claim, the bill explicitly denies federal officials the authority to use comparative effectiveness research to dictate care.

McCaughey advanced false claim about preventative coverage under Senate bill. In another recent attack, this time against the Senate health care reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, McCaughey falsely suggested that preventive care would be limited under the bill by the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines. But contrary to that claim, which she advanced in a November 24 New York Post column, the Senate bill does not require insurers to adopt US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations against preventive screenings, only those in favor of specific preventive screenings.

Credibility further undermined: McCaughey has health-care conflicts of interest dating back to '90s

McCaughey eventually resigned from medical company board over “conflict of interest” concerns. McCaughey's position on the board of directors of Cantel Medical Corp., a medical products company, and her receipt of stock options from that firm, were first reported in February and confirmed by McCaughey later that month. Several months later, in August, McCaughey finally resigned from that board to “avoid any appearance of a conflict interest,” as reported by The Washington Independent and confirmed in a Cantel press release.

McCaughey reported to be Big Tobacco shill during 1994 health care debate. Rolling Stone reported that in 1994, tobacco giant Philip Morris implemented a “strategy to derail Hillarycare,” which included an “effort to 'work on the development of favorable pieces' with 'friendly contacts in the media' ” -- specifically mentioning the company's reported collaboration with McCaughey on her 1994 New Republic hit piece on the Clintons' health care reform bill. Responding to the Rolling Stone article, McCaughey described as “outrageous and fictional” the charge that she “worked for a tobacco company in writing my critique of the dangers of the Clinton Plan. I did not. I was a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, and did no fundraising or conferring with corporations. Absolutely none.”