As the Beltway press scrambles to keep pace with the White House’s shifting explanations as to why President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey -- explanations that seem built on a laundry list of daily deceptions -- journalists are now fighting a multiple-front war versus the Republican crusade to embrace fabrications as a rule.
The erratic new president has unleashed a torrent of lies in the place of public policy discussion, but the serial mendacity on the right is hardly limited to Trump. That means journalists face a growing challenge in trying to ferret out the facts.
After voting to pass a sweeping health care bill with no formal cost assessment, which hadn’t been marked up in policy committees, and which hadn’t even been read by all members of Congress, Republicans have been on an extraordinary public relations campaign to support the controversial legislation.
The push is extraordinary because Republican officials, led by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, are aggressively fabricating claims about the bill that’s now pending before the Senate. In a Trump era of endless firsts, this is likely the first time we’ve seen a major American political party try to pass a landmark social policy initiative by categorically misstating almost every key claim about the bill.
No, the House bill does not protect people with pre-existing conditions. It does not protect older Americans from increased insurance costs. It does not mean everyone will be charged the same for insurance. The bill wasn’t “bipartisan.” And it does not allow “for every single person to get the access to the kind of coverage that they want,” as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price claims.
If it did those things, the bill wouldn’t be controversial, would it? So instead, Republicans are committed to selling a fantasy version of the House bill -- and hoping the press doesn’t call them out on it.
“What really stands out, however, is the Orwell-level dishonesty of the whole effort,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “Everything about Trumpcare is specifically designed to do exactly the opposite of what Trump, Paul Ryan and other Republicans said it would.”
This represents a dangerous new age in American politics. If Republicans succeed by lying about their health care plan, there’s no telling what the next target of GOP fabrications will be.
Right now, the future does not look promising because while some journalists and opinion writers, including those quoted above, are rightfully pointing out the GOP lies, others are routinely treating Republican health care lies as merely assertions in a larger he said/he said partisan debate.
As Brian Beutler noted at The New Republic:
To that end, these Republicans are counting on the reporters who interview them, and the news outlets that report on AHCA, to either not grasp finer points of health policy or to feel inhibited from disputing lies, so that the lies get transmitted to the public uncorrected.
Indeed, if Republicans don’t get called out for trafficking in fabrications, what’s the incentive for them to stop? If the press treats the GOP’s systematic lying as nothing more than partisan spin, there’s little downside to the strategy.
On Twitter, some observers have highlighted news organizations guilty of privileging GOP health care lies:
— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) May 7, 2017
Everybody at Axios knows this is a demonstrably false statement from Ryan https://t.co/tsPoEnr9bd
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 7, 2017
Note that it wasn’t just Axios’ Twitter feed that failed. In its write-up of Ryan’s TV appearance, Axios simply regurgitated the Republican’s false claims about health care and provided readers with no context about how many central untruths he was peddling.
Meanwhile, look at this feel-good New York Times headline that followed Ryan’s TV appearance and ask yourself, why would Republicans start telling the truth if lying produces headlines like this?
And note how The Associated Press struggled while covering Secretary Price’s recent illogical claim that a proposed $880 billion cut in Medicaid funding to states over 10 years would actually help states provide better health care (emphasis added):
CBO's analysis highlighted an $880 billion cut to Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor and disabled, which Price sought to cast as a way to give states more leeway to experiment with the program. The Obama-era law expanded Medicaid with extra payments to 31 states to cover more people. The House bill halts the expansion, in addition to cutting federal spending on the program.
But Price insisted Sunday, “There are no cuts to the Medicaid program,” adding that resources were being apportioned “in a way that allows states greater flexibility.”
Basically, Price was claiming up is down, and AP did its best to let him get away with it.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, which analyzed a previous version of the bill passed by the House, the $880 billion in Medicaid cuts would translate into 14 million people losing Medicaid coverage.
After pressing Price during a recent interview on his central contradiction about Medicaid (i.e. big cuts make it better!), NBC’s Andrea Mitchell seemed a bit exasperated: “I think a lot of people wonder how taking more than $800 billion out of something is going to put more resources in it.”
It was good that Mitchell compelled Price to answer, but how did NBC News then treat Price’s nonsensical Meet the Press appearance? It rewarded him by repeating his health care lies in a headline: “HHS Sec. Tom Price: 'Nobody Will Be Worse Off Financially' Under GOP Health Plan.”
And the lede of that article:
No one will be adversely affected by the Republicans' new health care bill once it's enacted and more people would be covered, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
Politico did something similar for comments from Ryan: “Ryan: GOP Health Care Bill Not Only Good Policy, But Good Politics.”
For the GOP, that’s mission accomplished. And somewhere, Trump is smiling.
The good news is there’s still plenty of time for reporters to accurately describe how Republicans are trying to sell health care via baldfaced lies.
In Friday’s Washington Post, Dave Weigel did just that. He wrote a straightforward report about how Republicans, pressed at town hall meetings to defend the GOP’s bill, have unfurled “a series of flat misstatements and contradictions about what’s actually in the bill.”
Today, Republicans are unapologetic about spreading health care fabrications. More journalists should simply document that fact.