Media Matters: The jagged little pill that is health care coverage

Rush Limbaugh believes that there is no health care crisis in America. And he's not alone. With the right wing's relentless onslaught against any attempt to reform health care in America just getting started, the need for honest reporting on the issue is greater than ever.


Rush Limbaugh believes that there is no health care crisis in America. And he's not alone. With the right wing's relentless onslaught against any attempt to reform health care in America just getting started, the need for honest reporting on the issue is greater than ever. (David Goodfriend's honest comments on CNBC were refreshing, but unfortunately, they represent the exception, not the rule.)

This week, the Congressional Budget Office released a partial analysis of the Senate health committee's draft health care reform bill. And immediately, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, David Brooks, USA Today, The New York Times, and ABC's Jake Tapper all misinterpreted its findings, claiming that the legislation would cost a trillion dollars while still leaving nearly 40 million Americans uninsured. When House Majority Leader John Boehner advanced similar fallacies on The Situation Room, he wasn't challenged by Wolf Blitzer.

CBO Director Douglas W. Elmendorf actually explained his agency's findings in a letter to Sen. Ted Kennedy. He wrote that those considering the analysis should know that "[t]he draft legislation released by the HELP [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee ... indicates that certain features may be added at a later date." Furthermore, the draft legislation evaluated didn't include “a 'public health insurance option' and requirements for 'shared responsibility' by employers. Depending on their details, such provisions could ... have substantial effects on our analysis.” In other words, withhold final judgment, because that's what we are doing. But that's not what was done in the press. At least Robert Reich was paying attention.

The other piece of health care news making the rounds this week involved President Obama's speech to the American Medical Association. A bit of background: While the AMA is a powerful lobbying force for the medical industry, it claims only 29 percent of America's doctors as members. Despite this, NBC's Savannah Guthrie and CNN's Kitty Pilgrim both claimed that it represents “the nation's doctors.”

It should also be noted that the press often ignores the group's sponsorship by the pharmaceutical industry.

While usually opposing changes to the status quo (the AMA opposed the creation of Medicare in the 1960s, for example), the organization has signaled a willingness to consider a public health insurance option. But in two separate articles this week, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Robert Pear, and Jackie Calmes of The New York Times continued to report that the group is resolutely against such an idea, repeating an omission from the previous week. The aforementioned errors -- overstating the degree to which the AMA speaks for doctors and ignoring its corporate sponsorship -- were also in effect.

Following the pattern, The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly described the AMA as being “the nation's largest physician group” without noting that there are 800,000 doctors in America or that the AMA gets at least 20 percent of its budget from drug companies.

With everything Frank Luntz is doing to undermine health care reform in America, the last thing the public needs is more misinformation on the issue.

Other major stories this week:

Media just can't get it right on Obama, economic polling (MOE +/- 0%)

Five months into his tenure, Obama and his administration remain broadly popular. But in an attempt to generate drama, multiple news organizations interpreted new polling data this week on the economy in the most negative light possible.

ABC's The Note -- yet another liberal product of the "All Barack Channel" -- cited a New York Times/CBS News poll noting that 57 percent of the public had a favorable view of the Democratic Party, as opposed to only 28 percent who thought well of the Republicans. The Note's Rick Klein spun that unambiguous outcome thusly: “The new polls have little good news for Republicans -- unless you count worrisome news for the president as good news for his opponents.” Most administrations wouldn't consider support from nearly six in 10 Americans as “worrisome news,” but Klein apparently does.

Klein summarized his analysis by writing, “Either something or somebody gets dragged down when a popular president pushes unpopular policies.” It was a sentiment echoed by The New York Times, which managed to misrepresent its own survey. The Times article on the poll said, “A majority of people said his [Obama's] policies have had either no effect yet on improving the economy or had made it worse.” But omitted from the story were several important numbers; among them, the 57 percent of the public that approved of Obama's handling of the economy and the 32 percent who felt that his policies had improved the country's economic condition -- more than twice the number of those who thought they had hurt it. Forty-eight percent of respondents believed that so far, no effect had been felt. The Times grouped that number with the 15 percent who thought Obama's policies had hurt the economy in order to produce the supposed “majority.”

Over at Congressional Quarterly, an article on the same poll (and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll) headlined “Honeymoon Over: It's on Obama's Watch Now” commented that while Obama had once enjoyed “a grace period when the public saw the nation's problems as ones he inherited,” there was now “public concern ... over the size of the deficit.”

It isn't wrong to note that people are concerned about budget deficits. But the article ignored yet another key finding from the NBC/Journal poll: that 6 percent of the public currently blames Obama for the budget situation, while 46 percent blame President Bush. That might not be something worth reporting for Sean Hannity, but it should be for a CQ journalist.

Speaking of deficits, conservative commentators have, of course, used much ink and airtime to attack Obama on that and other economic issues. Media coverage has, by and large, given them free rein to do so, in the process helping to promote the idea that neither the public nor responsible economic commentators will tolerate increased deficits. This was the narrative advanced by the Journal, NBC's Nightly News, the CBS Evening News, and the Times this week.

While a majority of the public does want the administration focused on deficit reduction (52 percent in the Times/CBS poll, 58 percent in the NBC/Journal poll), the reports, being so eager to portray the tide of opinion as turning against Obama, failed to note that prominent economists have disagreed with the idea that reducing the deficit should be the administration's most important priority at the current time, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi among them.

Hey, Fox News. Jealous much?

So, what happened when ABC News announced plans to broadcast a June 24 prime-time special called "Questions for the President: Prescription for America," a town hall meeting on health care reform with Obama, from the White House? Fox News and media conservatives went absolutely nuts.

That's right: To say that Fox News hosts and guests have been critical of ABC News would be putting it mildly. One host, for example, agreed with a Republican National Committee complaint that ABC's special “will become a glorified infomercial” for the Obama administration. But in expressing concerns about the ABC News broadcast, those on Fox News did not make any attempt to distinguish -- or even mention -- the extraordinary access Fox News had to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other high-ranking administration during the Bush years -- using those opportunities to lob softball questions and provide an uncritical platform for administration talking points -- from the ABC event.

In a flashback of sorts, Media Matters for America noted that just last year, Fox News was boasting about its “unprecedented” access to the Bush White House. Who could forget their moving “George W. Bush: Fighting to the Finish” tribute?

Some Fox News hosts and guests have also suggested a “conflict of interest,” pointing to the fact that former ABC News correspondent Linda Douglass is now communications director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Health Reform. Again, Fox News' concern over the ABC News special is noteworthy given Fox's history. In 2006, Tony Snow, then a Fox News anchor and radio host, left Fox to serve as Bush's White House press secretary.

One highlight of Fox's weeklong whine-fest was how hosts and guests attempted to explain away their own network's rightward tilt. On Special Report, Charles Krauthammer actually acknowledged that Fox News is the “voice of opposition in the media,” while Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy laid it on rather thick, saying that “here at Fox we still do journalism” and that “when you watch the other channels ... you don't hear a lot of the criticism.”

Perhaps Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow here at Media Matters, said it best appearing on Fox News when he said: “I think conservatives are confusing being in the minority with being victims of liberal bias.”

Walpin: They'll turn this into a scandal or die trying

Since Gerald Walpin was fired from his position as inspector general at the Corporation for National and Community Service last week, conservatives and Fox News hosts have claimed that he was removed for investigating an Obama ally. The White House has since provided a list of reasons for Walpin's termination, including but not limited to the corporation board's concerns over Walpin's behavior and conduct, as well as a complaint filed by acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California Lawrence G. Brown regarding Walpin's actions during his investigation into the misuse of AmeriCorps grants given to a nonprofit organization in Sacramento, California.

Fox & Friends aired on-screen text this week asserting as fact the claim -- disputed by the Obama administration -- that Walpin was “fired for protecting taxpayers.” Other graphics that aired throughout the report asked whether Walpin was “dismissed for doing his job” and if there was a “cover-up at AmeriCorps.”

As has become standard operating procedure, Fox's Glenn Beck took things to the absurd, stating that Walpin was dismissed because he “wouldn't sit in the last row of seats; he wouldn't get up from the counter.” Get it? Walpin's firing equals the struggle for civil rights.

Walpin attempted to mount a defense this week by taking to the conservative airwaves with appearances on Glenn Beck and Fox & Friends as well as Laura Ingraham's radio program. In each of his appearances, hosts failed to note or ask Walpin about Brown's allegations. Specifically, that Walpin and his staff “did not include” or “disclose” relevant information regarding the case involving the misuse of AmeriCorps to Brown's office; that Walpin repeatedly discussed the case in the press after being advised “under no circumstance was he to communicate with the media about a matter under investigation” ; and that Walpin's “actions were hindering our investigation and handling of this matter.”

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Boehlert wonders if Fox News big enough for Shep Smith and Glenn Beck; Jamison Foser asks when a 63 percent approval rating became a bad thing; and Karl Frisch offers up a Top Ten list for David Letterman's conservative critics.

Buy the book

Don't forget to order your autographed copy of Boehlert's compelling new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, May 2009).

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary.