The Media's ObamaCare Dodge
Way back in 2009, when the world was young and the website healthcare.gov was just a gleam in the glass eye of a government computer programmer, I had lunch with a Big Foot of the mainstream media. Congress was slopping together the dog’s breakfast that we have come to know as ObamaCare, and Sarah Palin was warning that the new scheme would impose “death panels” to ration care for the terminally ill or infirm.
Her claim inspired universal scorn. By “universal,” of course, I mean universal among people like my lunch companion. As a committed mainstreamer, he had little choice but to share in the contempt, which he expressed by frequent use of the word idiot and its variants. Gingerly I offered a dissent. Rationing of expensive medical procedures was already taking place, I pointed out, fingering my imaginary stethoscope. At the moment, I said, those end-of-life decisions are made by insurance companies, doctors, or families. But it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the centralizing tendencies of ObamaCare, together with its need to control costs, could in time shift such decision-making to government specialists. “Death panel” was a too colorful and provocative phrase, I agreed. Still, Palin had a point.
“Are you serious?” my companion said, and when I said sure I was, well yeah, kind of, I mean, I guess so, he suddenly looked very sleepy. I thought of those Looney Tunes characters who can pull down their eyelids like window shades to signal catatonic boredom. His shoulders sagged. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but I think he even stopped working his jaws in mid-chew.
“Okay,” he said at last, with the air of a man unsettled by a sad and unexpected revelation: This person he was eating lunch with was a lunatic, and he’d better get things wrapped up as quickly as possible. I haven’t seen him since.
The Big Foot came to mind the other day when Mark Halperin of Time and Morning Joe—a mainstreamer than whom no one is more mainstream—told a radio interviewer that rationing under ObamaCare was going to be a “huge issue.” Maybe even in the form of death panels!
“It’s built into the plan,” he said. “It’s not like a guess or a judgment. That’s going to be part of how costs are controlled.” And in his public statements on the subject, Halperin added, President Obama had not been “straightforward.”
Never mind Obama, I thought: What about you guys?
My lunch companion’s sadness at my depravity four years ago and Halperin’s recent concession make for a convenient timeline, as they help us trace the American press’s relationship with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. What began as a romance descended into a bitter divorce this fall.
First came the disastrous introduction of healthcare.gov, ObamaCare’s public face. Next came reports that millions of happily insured Americans had received cancellation notices because their policies didn’t offer the mandatory benefits required by ObamaCare. As the year ended, a new army of witnesses was coming forward: people who already have employer-provided health insurance—the vast majority of the population—but face rising premiums, higher deductibles, or a smaller pool of doctors.
By now, schoolchildren recite the president’s famous pledge as they drift off to sleep: “If you like your health insurance, you can keep your health insurance.” It has taken an honored place in the treasurehouse of presidential malarkey, easily a match for “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sex with that woman,” though less fun to imitate at cocktail parties. Maybe someday.
The president’s pithy pledge provided a hook that made the story simpler to report than the usual convolutions of policy wonkery. Even so, it took a while for ObamaCare’s initial collapse to attract the attention of the Washington press corps. At an October press conference, more than a week after the debut of the website, the president answered questions for more than an hour without once having to address the welling chaos. Instead, he was questioned sympathetically, and he talked incessantly about the government shutdown.
Not until the end of the month did the cancellations story take hold, when NBC reported that the administration had known all along that “millions could not keep their health insurance.” The story breathlessly attributed this revelation to “four sources deeply involved in the Affordable Care Act” and quoted internal memos affirming it. Now here was something to pique a reporter’s interest: leaked emails, official documents, government secrets, backroom chicanery, a cover-up!
Presented this way, the story of ObamaCare’s Hindenburg-like launch had a glaring omission: the role the press played in it, or rather refused to play. There had been no cover-up, because there had been no need for one. The administration didn’t have to hide from Americans what the press wasn’t interested in telling them.
Consider the issue of the “unforeseen” cancellations. At a televised summit on health-care reform in February 2010, one House Republican leader, Eric Cantor, impertinently advised the president that by authoritative estimates ObamaCare would cost 8 to 9 million people their individual insurance. And this is precisely what has come to pass. A few months later, Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, tried to sound the alarm about new regulations that would, by the regulators’ own calculations, cancel the insurance policies of “as many as 67 percent of individual purchasers.” Neither Grassley nor Cantor won coverage in the mainstream press, although Grassley’s statement was sent over the States News Service wire to the folks back home. You might have caught it in the Farm Report.
“Until now, it was very difficult to say definitively that the president [was] not correct,” the Washington Post’s “fact checker” told Politico’s media reporter in November, when the cancellations rose to a flood tide. Factchecker.org, for its part, said the president had been “overpromising,” a verbal nerf ball suggesting that the big galoot’s heart was just too darn big for his own good. But this isn’t true. As Grassley, Cantor, and a large group of conservative policy experts tried to explain for more than two years, the cancellations were a key feature of the law, not an unintended consequence. Obama’s reform was designed to outlaw any health-insurance policy that fell short of new federal standards. If you had such a policy, it was going to be taken away. Even if you wanted to keep it. The president insists it’s for your own good.
Perhaps it’s the naked authoritarianism of this logic that made the mainstreamers reluctant to follow it. Obama’s goal—a more centralized system that will allow government planners to direct health-care resources to the poor—was in line with those of the mainstreamers, so they had little motive to dwell on the means of attaining it. There’s also the progressive disinclination to believe that social reforms carry any cost at all, so long as the reformer’s heart is in the right place. Even our jaded journalists believe in a world where everyone’s a winner!
Meanwhile, press critics, trying to account for the press’s failure to warn the public of the reform’s shortcomings, have reached consensus: It’s the fault of…the Republicans. “The press often takes its cues about the flaws in a policy from the opposition party,” wrote a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. “In this case, conservative politicians and pundits often emphasized baseless charges”—those death panels again—that undermined their credibility with scrupulous reporters, who then simply ignored the less colorful and more plausible critiques of the right.
To be sure, I should insert a butt-covering “to be sure” paragraph here: ObamaCare is young, and Republicans, delighting in its current failings, will likely overplay their hand, as they so often do, assuming that the program’s present downward trajectory will continue forever. Yet these relentlessly negative stories of failure will begin to bore the press. And there will soon be many happy stories to tell as well, of disadvantaged people getting health insurance for the first time. ObamaCare may still prove the triumph of statism its designers dreamed of and the rest of us feared.