Last week, the Washington Post reported on a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll:
The poll found that misconceptions about the legislation persist, including the “death panel” falsehood propagated by opponents of the legislation.
“A year after the town meeting wars of last summer, a striking 36% of seniors said that the law 'allowed a government panel to make decisions about end of life care for people on Medicare', and another 17% said they didn't know,” Kaiser Family Foundation chief executive Drew Altman wrote.
Brendan Nyhan argues that “motivated reasoning appears to play an important role in the persistence of the misperception ... 55% of seniors with an unfavorable view of the law believed in the death panel myth, while only 17% of those with a favorable view did so.”
I would argue that something else surely plays a role: The failure of the media to consistently and clearly explain that the “death panels” claim was false. Sure, most major news organizations made that clear at least once. But they didn't do so consistently.
Let's take the Washington Post, for example, since it reported on the persistence of the myth.
Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has praised his paper's “death panels” coverage, writing on March 22: “One stellar moment for the press was the refusal to perpetuate the myth of 'death panels.' ... journalists at The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and ABC News, among others, said flatly that this was untrue.” And Post political reporter Perry Bacon said in June 21 Live Q&A: “If you recall, the death panels issue got traction in conservative media, even as papers like ours did not cover it very much.”
But this year alone, Post readers have encountered more than a dozen references to “death panels” that failed to explicitly state that such panels didn't exist. The following articles and columns mention the “death panels” claim without stating its falsity:
“The doctor is (finally) in; Medicare administrator must usher in low-cost, efficient care,” David Ignatius, July 9
“A patriot's second act,” Dana Milbank, June 3
“Under the new health-care law, what will happen when providers' morals conflict with patients' rights?,” Rob Stein, May 11
“History shows that Democrats aren't exactly the boys of summer,” Al Kamen, March 26
“44: Grassley touts provisions he authored in health bill he voted against,” Michael Shear, March 24
“Three points for conservatives,” E.J. Dionne, March 23
“The Republicans who stirred the tea,” Dana Milbank, March 22
“Would Reagan vote for Sarah Palin?; He's their hero, but Palin and the tea partiers need to understand his true legacy,” Steven F. Hayward (AEI) March 7
“Political theater with a point,” Kathleen Parker, March 3
“Obama ready to advance on health care; In radio address, GOP compromise still offered but has limited shelf life,” Anne Kornblut, February 28
“Trig and political calculus,” Kathleen Parker, February 14
“How can apple pie suddenly turn bad?; To learn what's gone wrong with health-care reform, go back to 1994,” Abigail Trafford, February 2
“Funding for health-care interest groups often fuzzy,” Dan Eggen, January 7
“Leader without a cause,” Richard Cohen, January 5
Yes, some of those are opinion columns, including one written by an AEI staffer rather than a Post employee. That isn't a relevant defense: Opinion columns have the ability to influence readers, too -- otherwise, why would they exist? And the Washington Post is responsible for everything that appears in its pages.
And, to be sure, some of those references are critical of the “death panels” rhetoric. The March 23 E.J. Dionne piece, for example, read:
In its current incarnation, conservatism has taken on an angry crankiness. It is caught up in a pseudo-populism that true conservatism should mistrust -- what on Earth would Bill Buckley have made of “death panels” ? The creed is caught up in a suspicion of all reform that conservatives of the Edmund Burke stripe have always warned against.
But it didn't say the “death panels” claim wasn't true. (To Dionne's credit, his July 26 column was explicit: “There were no 'death panels' in the Democratic health-care bills. But this false charge got so much coverage that an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll last August found that 45 percent of Americans thought the reform proposals would likely allow 'the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly.' That was the summer when support for reform was dropping precipitously. A straight-out lie influenced the course of one of our most important debates.” )
No such credit is owed to Kornblut's February 28 news article, which simply stated “Death panels became part of the debate last summer, after prominent Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, claimed the government would set them up to decide who could live or die.” Or Kamen's misleading statement that “the tea partiers got their operation in gear at the usually dull town hall meetings with lawmakers, berating them for supporting those death panels.” Really? “those” death panels? Which death panels are “those” ?
Washington Post readers shouldn't be surprised to learn that many people still believe in “death panels” -- not when the Post has repeatedly mentioned the death panel claim without debunking it.
Incidentally, Washington Post reporters and editors won't answer this simple question: Does the Post think it is sufficient to occasionally debunk falsehoods, or does the paper believe it should do so every time it prints those falsehoods?