Cable nets still misleading on AARP membership losses due to health reform

Media figures on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News continue to attach significance to reports that 60,000 senior citizens have canceled their AARP membership since July 1 because of the organization's support for health care reform, often displaying large graphics of the number while discussing it. However, the Associated Press has reported that, according to the AARP, the organization regularly loses 300,000 members a month and has also gained 400,000 new members since July 1.

Cable hosts fail to provide context for membership-loss figure

CNN's Blitzer, Johns: Tens of thousands of seniors quitting AARP. On the August 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer teased an upcoming segment on health care by saying, "[H]ealth care fears in the 50-plus generation: Why tens of thousands right now are quitting the AARP and what it might mean for the White House." CNN correspondent Joe Johns later stated: "[S]eniors have turned out in huge numbers to protest health care reform. Now, they're objecting in another way. Sixty thousand of them are quitting AARP -- and that's just in the last six weeks." While Johns spoke, CNN displayed the following graphic:

aarp1

Hannity claimed loss of 60,000 members “very indicative.” On August 18, Fox News' Sean Hannity stated: "[W]hat are we to make of the AARP? According to reports now -- CBS News had a report -- 60,000 members of the AARP have left. I think that's very indicative that they're losing seniors. There is a conservative alternative, American Seniors for Choice, which is against Obama's plan. They gained as many as 5,000 members." He also stated that AARP's “love affair” with President Obama “has cost the AARP tens of thousands of members.”

Fox News' Van Susteren: “Sixty thousand senior citizens have bolted AARP.” On the August 18 edition of her Fox News show, Greta Van Susteren stated: “They're out -- 60,000 of them. Sixty thousand senior citizens have bolted AARP since July 1.” She then interviewed an AARP member who stated that she is planning to quit the group because of her views on the AARP's position on health care reform.

Doocy: “Sixty thousand people: that is the number of people who have left or canceled AARP.” On August 19, Fox News Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy stated: “Sixty thousand people: that is the number of people who have left or canceled AARP -- the American Association of Retired Persons -- since July 1st. Some members are outraged and continue to criticize the over-50 group because of their support for health care reform.” The following graphic appeared onscreen while Doocy spoke:

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Chris Matthews' “Big Number” : “Sixty thousand seniors have walked out on AARP this summer over reform.” From the August 18 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Time for tonight's “Big Number” : The AARP's going out on a bit of a limb by backing efforts for health care reform. So, here's proof that no good deed goes unpunished. How many seniors have canceled their membership in AARP this summer, specifically citing AARP's push for some sort of health care overhaul? Sixty thousand.

Sixty thousand seniors have walked out on AARP this summer over reform -- tonight's “Big Number.”

At the end of the segment, Hardball displayed the following graphic:

aarp3

Other cable news hosts and reporters previously cited 60,000 figure. As Media Matters for America documented, other media figures, including MSNBC host Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Fox Business host Connell McShane, and NBC News correspondent Savannah Guthrie similarly reported that 60,000 senior citizens have canceled their AARP membership since July 1 without providing relevant context for that number.

AARP spokesman reportedly stated organization gained 400,000 members since July 1

Spokesman also reported that organization regularly loses 300,000 per month. From an August 17 Associated Press article:

The membership loss suggests dissatisfaction on the part of AARP members at a time when many senior citizens are concerned about proposed cuts to Medicare providers to help pay for making health care available for all. But spokesman Drew Nannis said it wasn't unusual for the powerful, 40 million-strong senior citizens' lobby to shed members in droves when it's advocating on a controversial issue.

[...]

The approximately 60,000 number represents members who specifically cited AARP's stance on the health overhaul debate in canceling their membership between July 1 and mid-August, Nannis said. He said that on average AARP loses some 300,000 members a month, but he couldn't say how many more members had quit for other reasons in that time period.

AARP gained some 400,000 new members during the same period and that 1.5 million members renewed their membership. [Associated Press; 8/17/09]

Transcripts

From the August 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: And health care fears in the 50-plus generation: Why tens of thousands right now are quitting the AARP and what it might mean for the White House.

[...]

BLITZER: Some members of the AARP are not very happy about health care reform. Let's talk about that and more with former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, the Politico's Nia-Malika Henderson, and our own senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

But let's get some background first from CNN's Joe Johns. All right, set this up for us, Joe.

JOHNS: Wolf, seniors have turned out in huge numbers to protest health care reform. Now, they're objecting in another way. Sixty thousand of them are quitting AARP -- and that's just in the last six weeks.

They say they're concerned about possible cuts to Medicare and they're mad the organization, which is for Americans 50 years older and up, has taken a stand in favor of reform, even though AARP has not officially endorsed any plans yet.

From the August 18 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

HANNITY: Now, President Obama has been quick to point out that he and the AARP are on the same page when it comes to health care reform, but it turns out that the love affair has cost the AARP tens of thousands of members.

Now, CBS News reports that at least 60,000 people have canceled their memberships to that group since only July 1st.

[...]

HANNITY: Now, what are we to make of the AARP? According to reports now -- CBS News had a report -- 60,000 members of the AARP have left. I think that's very indicative that they're losing seniors. There is a conservative alternative, American Seniors for Choice, which is against Obama's plan. They gained as many as 5,000 members. What does that mean for the president politically?

TRACY BYRNES (Fox Business reporter): He's not winning on this. You know, this whole administration has been “shoot now, ask questions later.” This policy is coming out not unlike Secretary Paulson coming out with one piece of paper saying, “I need $700 billion by 4 o'clock or the world's going to implode.”

This whole notion of trying to scare us into signing onto something is disappearing by the second. And I think seniors are the perfect person --

DANA PERINO (Fox News contributor): They misread the American electorate.

BYRNES: -- group telling us.

PERINO: They absolutely misread how seniors were going to feel about this. And they are walking down a road where they're going to not be able to unite the country on anything unless they can pull back.

From the August 18 edition of Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Susteren:

[begin video clip]

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: AARP has not endorsed the legislation.

[...]

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: I'm done. I apologize to our members. I'm sorry this happens --

[crosstalk]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Cancel your memberships. Cancel your memberships. Cancel your memberships and any --

[crosstalk]

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: I'm [unintelligible] canceling my membership and I would like to have my dues back. What I'm going to do is get out and get my money back.

[end video clip]

VAN SUSTEREN: They're out -- 60,000 of them. Sixty thousand senior citizens have bolted AARP since July 1.

So what's up? Why are they all quitting? Joining us live is Elaine Guardiani who is quitting AARP. Elaine, how long you been a member?

GUARDIANI: Fourteen years, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: So why -- so are you planning on quitting, or have you quit?

GUARDIANI: I haven't quit yet because I have a hospitalization policy with them that I need to determine how I can separate, but I am definitely quitting or letting my membership run into nonrenewal.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why are you quitting, or why do you want to quit?

GUARDIANI: Well, Greta, you know, health is something that deteriorates with the advancement of age, and that's a -- that's a known fact, and those of us at the upper end of the spectrum are going to need more health care than those at the bottom end of that spectrum. Now the AARP understands this and that's what their core membership is.

For them to come out very, very early on and come in support and endorsement of this bill was irresponsible in my view, and this is what's causing most of us members to bolt.

From the August 19 edition of Fox News' Fox & Friends:

DOOCY: Sixty thousand people: that is the number of people who have left or canceled AARP -- the American Association of Retired Persons -- since July 1st. Some members are outraged and continue to criticize the over-50 group because of their support for health care reform, which the president is pushing right now.