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Jonathan Cohn

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  • Assessing the media's health care coverage

    Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

    Jonathan Cohn, whose coverage of health care for The New Republic has drawn frequent praise, offers the latest assessment of the media's coverage of the reform fight of the past year. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has provided a few such assessments, but his tend to consist of little more than mindless cheerleading for his colleagues that doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Cohen's take, on the other hand, deserves more attention.

    Cohn, for example, seems to recognize one of the key characteristics that made his (and Ezra Klein's) health care reporting valuable:

    I certainly spent far more time on the more mundane task of explanation-whether it was describing how a particular policy proposal might work or laying out the political dynamics of a particular moment. Occasionally this writing got a lot of attention, because it included a reporting tidbit that qualified as a scoop. More often, it didn't. But over time I came to realize that the mere sharing of information has enormous value-even to people in Washington who, you might suppose, already know what they need to know.

    Indeed, one of the many lessons I learned over the last year is that, even at the very highest levels of power, people frequently operate with limited knowledge and perspective. That's true of how they think about policy and that's true of how they think about politics.

    I've argued more times than I care to count that this is what the public (including "Washington Insiders" who, as Cohn notes, often know less than you, and they, would expect) needs from the media: Clear explanations of policy. It's such a basic thing, but one that is often lost amid paragraph after paragraph allegation and response and "analysis" of how things are likely to "play." We don't need to know that Senate Staffer X says Tax Provision Y will be a political albatross for Political Party Z -- we just need to know who the provision affects, why, and how.

    There's real value in explanation -- far more, I would argue, than in simply reporting the day's latest developments and charges and counter-charges and speculation. And in repeated explanation -- it isn't enough to explain one time how Tax Provision Y will affect readers, while devoting dozens of articles to detailing claims and counter-claims about it. You can't expect readers or viewers to have seen that one explanation, or to remember and apply it to each time they hear Senate Staffer X make a claim about it. Telling the truth once isn't enough. Not if your goal is to give your readers and viewers the tools they need to make informed decisions.

    So I'm thrilled that Cohn discusses the value of the "mundane task of explanation," and hope it catches on.

    One of Cohn's central points about the media's coverage of health care is that the coverage "took place at internet speed" and was produced by a diverse array of news outlets -- and that, as a result, the media was able to expose falsehoods "just a little more quickly -- and, hopefully, a bit more effectively." Cohn offers an example:

    Consider what happened in September, when the insurance industry released a study purporting to show that reform would cause insurance premiums to skyrocket. The Senate Finance Committee-the logjam in the legislative process-was set to vote on its bill in less than 48 hours. The study, commissioned by the insurance lobby and conducted by a private accounting firm, represented a clear effort to undermine support. It was the kind of move that lobbying groups make all the time-and, in the old days, it might have worked, since nobody would have seen through the study's tilted assumptions until, as with McCaughey's old article, the damage had been done. But within hours of its publication, several blogs, including this one, had published critiques showing just how flawed the study was. The critiques circulated in Washington and provoked a backlash against the insurers. Wavering Democrats said they were offended by the effort at political sabotage; the Finance Committee went on to pass the bill, as it had originally planned.

    Cohn portrays the coverage of the insurance industry study as an example of how well the media did its job. But it is also a reminder of how badly the Washington Post (among others) failed its readers.

    See, when the study came out, the Post's Ceci Connolly hyped the study without making any attempt to assess its validity -- even though by the time her article ran, Cohn had already noted that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were false.

    The next day, Connolly wrote another article about the study -- an article that again failed to assess the study's credibility, failed to note the dubious track record of the firm that conducted it, and failed to explain the assumptions and limitations of the study. Her article even failed to mention that the accounting firm that conducted the study had already begun distancing itself from the way the insurance lobby was using it.

    The day after that, yet another Connolly article focused on the insurance industry's attack on health care reform. Finally, in the 19th paragraph of that article, Connolly got around to mentioning that the accounting firm was distancing itself from the study -- but she still couldn't bring herself to mention that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were unlikely to come true.

    Six days later, the Washington Post gave an insurance industry executive op-ed space to defend the study and decry the "relentless public relations campaign" against it.

    Cohn is right that the bogus study was less damaging than it could have been had it not been swiftly debunked -- and that the people who did the debunking deserve praise. But it was also more damaging than it should have been, in no small part because of the absolutely dreadful job the Washington Post did of covering it.

    And that's ultimately what any assessment of the media's coverage of health care reform comes down to: Compared to what? To coverage of similar efforts in the past? To how badly they could have done things? Compared to how well they can reasonably be expected to do? Compared to a platonic ideal of flawless coverage?

    My own view is that the media's coverage of health care reform was much better than it could have been (explanatory journalism like that provided by Cohn and Klein being a key reason) and much worse than it should have been, and that there are lessons to be learned from both the success and the failures.