Media Matters: Press should take finger off button in “nuclear option” health care coverage

Media conservatives aren't content to merely misinform regarding the content of progressive health insurance reform legislation. They want to misinform about the legislative process used to pass that legislation, too. Just think of it: Death panels passed using a nuclear option. What American could support that?

Media conservatives aren't content to merely misinform regarding the content of progressive health insurance reform legislation. They want to misinform about the legislative process used to pass that legislation, too. Just think of it: Death panels passed using a nuclear option. What American could support that?

In recent days, talk of Senate Democrats using the budget reconciliation process to pass health care reform legislation has grown. According to Senate rules, bills advanced through the process can't be filibustered, and so the 60-vote threshold that must be met to defeat a filibuster would not apply. Republicans used reconciliation in exactly this way during the Bush years to pass tax cuts in 2001, 2003, and 2005. Senate Republicans also used the reconciliation process to pass a bill permitting oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The final version of that bill signed by Bush did not contain the provision on drilling.) So long as the legislation in question impacts the budget, doing so is within regular Senate order.

Conservatives in the media, however, have now chosen to portray such a course of action as the dreaded “nuclear option.” As usual, a little history reveals a lot of hypocrisy. The phrase was actually coined by former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) in 2003 during the Democratic filibuster of U.S. Court of Appeals nominee Miguel Estrada. At the time, Republican aides discussed changing the rules of the Senate to make filibusters of judicial nominees out of order. Lott, reflecting the drastic nature of such a change, called it a “nuclear option.” Starting in 2005, Republicans noted that the term polled badly. They began referring to such a rules change as the “constitutional option,” and claimed that only Democrats called it a “nuclear option.” The media quickly fell in line, repeating the falsehood.

Unsurprisingly, the hypocrisy has continued. Passing budget-related legislation through the reconciliation process and the “nuclear option” have nothing to do with each other.

This hasn't stopped the conservative media from conflating the two. The goal is to portray progressives as a group of anti-democratic radicals, forcing through a supposedly unpopular bill using procedural tricks -- or, in Chris Matthews' words, "blow[ing] up the Senate rules." Fox News vice president and Washington managing editor Bill Sammon was one of the first to draw the false equivalency back in June, and in recent days, the chorus has only grown. Dick Morris did the same on August 10, and Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed the distortion. The Fox Nation website even chose to illustrate the story using a mushroom cloud.

Just as they did several years ago, multiple mainstream media figures have taken up the right's deceitful talking point, among them A.B. Stoddard of The Hill, Matthews, and even CNN hosts Anderson Cooper and Kiran Chetry. Thus far, factual explanations, such as the one provided by CNN's Josh Levs, have been few and far between.

This distortion has jumped from the media to the highest levels of the Republican Party. When Hannity hosted RNC chairman Michael Steele, he asked about the “by any means necessary” approach Democrats were considering. “Does this mean the will of the American people,” Hannity asked, “as evidenced by just about every credible poll, means nothing to them?” (It seems as though NBC/Wall Street Journal polls are no longer credible to Hannity.) Steele agreed: “If it means the nuclear option, it's going to be the nuclear option.”

The right-wing distortion here is obvious and blatant. For the sake of its credibility, the media needs to take its finger off the “nuclear” button.

Other major stories this week

Tom DeLay joins Dancing with the Birthers

Disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has had quite a week. First, it was announced that he will be joining the new cast of ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America, DeLay told Chris Cuomo: “I love dancing. ... You've got to love dancing if you're from Texas.” He's right -- we all remember DeLay's deft ability to dance around congressional ethics rules. CNN's Campbell Brown called it DeLay's “second act,” but I'm pretty sure his curtain was called years ago.

Far from finished, DeLay made the rounds on cable and network television promoting his new venture as a reality star. On MSNBC's Hardball, DeLay aligned himself with CNN's Lou Dobbs by saying, “I would like the president to produce his birth certificate.”

Maybe ABC should rename the show Dancing with the Birthers, because Tom DeLay is apparently a master of el tango loco.

Beck's advertiser exodus continues

Last week we noted:

There was an encouraging development in the ongoing campaign to get hate off our public airwaves. After a host of progressive groups, among them Media Matters and, publicized Beck's recent rant accusing [President] Obama of racism, multiple companies announced that they would no longer advertise on his program -- among them: ConAgra, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis, Radio Shack, GEICO, Travelocity, and Sargento. Reflecting on the development, The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart said that it might “pump the brakes on some of these wild statements.” We can only hope.

Well, Beck's advertiser exodus continues. This week, Farmers Insurance reportedly said it had “ceased placing [ads] on Glenn Beck a week ago.” Likewise, GMAC Financial Services, parent company of Ally Bank, announced that it, too, had “ceased advertising on the Glenn Beck program.”

The conservative media chattering class is none too pleased with these developments. Radio host Rose Tennent called GEICO “idiots” for pulling Beck's ads, while radio talker Jim Quinn said Color of Change has “kowtowed” advertisers into ditching Beck. On his radio program, Fox News' Sean Hannity even claimed that accusations that radio hosts want the president dead (I, for one don't, remember anyone of prominence making this charge) were part of a “strategy to silence,” like “people go[ing] after advertisers.”

In other sponsor news, JC Penney reportedly said it has a “policy” that prohibits advertising on Rush Limbaugh's show -- but Media Matters was able to produce audio from El Rushbo's broadcast containing an ad for the retailer. Home Depot also reportedly claimed it doesn't “support” Limbaugh's program, and Media Matters was also able to produce audio of a Home Depot ad airing during the conservative leader's show. We welcome the policies announced by JC Penney and Home Depot, but perhaps now would be a good time for them to state publicly that they will no longer run ads on Rush's show.

When claimed that “the pressure on advertisers has become a politically charged debate about the right to free speech, censorship and what constitutes hate speech,” Media Matters' Eric Boehlert responded: “Do editors at not understand what 'censorship' means in terms of free speech? ... Of course, only the government can censor free speech.” In other words, the First Amendment doesn't guarantee anyone the right to his own show.

Conservative media: Barney Frank is soooo rude

At a town hall meeting in Massachusetts, a woman took to the mic and asked Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who is both Jewish and gay, “why do you continue to support a Nazi policy as Obama has expressly supported this policy? Why are you supporting it?” Frank responded: “When you ask me that question, I'm going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question. On what planet do you spend most of your time?” Frank went on to say, “You want me to answer the question? As you stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. ... Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to have an argument with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

For conservatives in the media, this was over the line. No, I'm not talking about the Nazi nonsense; I'm talking about Frank's response to the lunacy.

Fox News' Brian Kilmeade blasted Frank's “arrogance” and “smugness” and wondered why the Massachusetts Democrat couldn't just say, “I understand where you're coming from, but ... ” His Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy repeatedly defended the woman, claiming that Frank's response to her was “rude,” out of touch, and laden with “attitude,” while never noting the content of the woman's question. Limbaugh called the woman's Nazi sign and question “fabulous” before telling his listeners that Frank “spends most of his time living around Uranus.”

In the words of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, “I've been watching these town hall meetings, and I've had enough of these uncontrollable outbursts by members of Congress. Hey, congressmen, how are people supposed to scream their questions if you keep interrupting with your answers? And Democrat Barney Frank is the latest culprit.”

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert explains how the health care mobs = Swift Boat Vets. And the press plays dumb, again; Jamison Foser details how the media made this summer's political insanity inevitable; and Karl Frisch tells us how those “death panels” really do exist.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube or sign up to receive his columns by email.