Is this the best health care reporting the NYT can do?

You might assume the New York Times -- perhaps the world's most prestigious newspaper -- is capable of producing a news report that would clearly explain the health care reform situation. If today's effort by David Herszenhorn, Robert Pear, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg is any indication, you'd be wrong. The article confuses as much as it clarifies, gives undue weight to Republican attacks, and fails to properly explain the hypocrisy of those attacks.

In the lede, the Times reports that Democrats are trying to “advance the bill despite the loss of their 60-vote majority in the Senate.” That phrasing could lead many readers to conclude that Democrats no longer hold a majority in the Senate, rather than that they have simply lost their supermajority. In order to understand that the Times' phrasing does not mean “loss of their majority,” readers have to be aware of the significance of 60 votes. (Think about it: Would a newspaper ever report that a party that went from 54 to 53 Senate seats “lost its 54 seat majority” ? No; anyone reading “lost its 54 seat majority” would understand that to mean “lost its majority.” )

I know, I know. Some of you probably think everybody knows you need 60 votes to do anything in the Senate, so everyone will understand that this simply means Democrats have simply lost their supermajority. Oh yeah? Take a look at this (via Atrios):

That's the front page of a Philadelphia newspaper. If the professional journalists who produced that paper think Democrats have lost their majority, are you still sure New York Times readers will understand that “loss of their 60-vote majority” does not mean “loss of their majority” ? All of them?

In paragraph two, the Times reports:

The maneuver, known as budget reconciliation, could allow President Obama and his party to muscle the legislation through Congress with a simple majority vote in the Senate. But it carries numerous risks, including the possibility of a political backlash against what Republicans would be sure to cast as parliamentary trickery.

OK. Several problems here.

First, this phrasing suggests the entire health care reform package would be passed via reconciliation, which is false. Readers don't learn until four paragraphs later that reconciliation would simply be used to amend some provisions of the health care bill that has already passed the Senate.

Second, “muscle the legislation through Congress with a simple majority” describes majority rule as some sort of strong-arm tactic.

Third, “parliamentary trickery” is a completely bogus description of reconciliation. There's no “trickery” about it whatsoever. If the Times wanted to preview Republican attacks in a straightforward way, they could have cast the use of reconciliation as “unusual” rather than “trickery.” More to the point: Those Republican complaints will ring hollow, given that the GOP has used reconciliation to pass legislation when it controlled the Senate. Thirteen paragraphs later the Times article finally gets around to noting in passing that Republicans “occasionally used the tactic when they were in the majority.” That's woefully inadequate, as it fails to make clear the GOP used the tactic to pass hugely significant and contentious measures like budget-busting tax cuts and opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

But even that weak indication that the GOP criticisms are hypocritical came after the Times passed along another Republican attack:

Republicans, however, have made clear that they will portray Mr. Obama and Democrats as trying to use a hardball tactic to win passage of the health care legislation.

“Less than a week after the Massachusetts special election, the Obama administration is vowing to 'stay the course' and double down on the same costly, job-killing policies that are leaving America's middle-class families and small businesses high and dry,” said the House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio.

Though the Times quoted Boehner criticizing the substance of health care reform, it omitted any quote or paraphrase of any Democrat or other reform advocate praising reform, or criticizing Republican obstruction.

Two paragraphs later, the Times reported:

In the meantime, aides have been trying to devise a process by which the Senate could make changes to its health bill on a reconciliation measure even before the House voted on the Senate-passed health bill. Some lawmakers said House Democrats might have to vote first.

The Times did not indicate whether “some lawmakers” said that because there are procedural reasons why the House has to go first, or because there are political reasons why they want the House to go first. The Times reporters give no indication that they realize there is a pretty big difference between those things.

If this is the best the Times can do, it's no wonder the public has had such a poor understanding of health care reform.