Obamacare Media Fail: Did the President 'Work the Refs'?


The press is filling up with examinations of media culpability in failing to predict that the Affordable Care Act would render outrageously inaccurate President Barack Obama's pivotal, oft-repeated promise that if you liked your pre-Obamacare health plan, you'll be able to keep it.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, former Spinsanity hand Brendan Nyhan writes on "The failure to factcheck 'You can keep it'":

[T]his outcome was anticipated by health policy experts both within and outside the administration. Unfortunately, most media coverage before this week did not explain how the process was likely to play out or hold the president accountable for making promises he could never keep.

After documenting instances of both prescient reporting and lax watchdoggery, Nyhan speculates as to the why:

One problem is the media's lack of interest in policy, particularly when assessing claims that are not definitively false (most coverage of the plan was published before it took effect). In this sense, Obama's messaging strategy echoes the Bush administration, which frequently exploited this blind spot by promoting misleading or half-true claims that were difficult to factcheck and uninteresting or complicated to explain to readers. […]

Another possible explanation for the lack of scrutiny given to Obama's promises is that the press often takes its cues about the flaws in a policy from the opposition party, which is part of a pattern of indexing coverage to the range of debate among political elites. In this case, conservative politicians and pundits often emphasized baseless charges like "death panels" or made speculative claims about how it is intended to undermine employer-provided insurance.

This coverage failure underscores the need for a vocal and reality-based opposition.

In Politico's Monday-morning quarterbacking piece, there are competing theories. First up, Brendan Buck, press secretary for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio):

"People in the media rarely give us the benefit of the doubt, so we have to go to great lengths to prove what we're saying is accurate and fair," Buck said. "Now we have real-world, concrete examples that show what we're saying is true — that the president was misleading the public."

The president's recent score. ||| Washington Post
Washington Post

Next, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler:

"Let's face it, the media, particularly in Washington, can only focus on one big thing at a time. The reason this is happening now is because people are actually starting to get the cancellation letters […]

"The best media story is a story with a victim, and now you have people who can hold up the [cancellation] notices that say, 'You've lost your plan,'" he added. "Until now, it was very difficult to say definitively that the president was not correct, because that hadn't happened yet."

I suspect there are elements of truth to all of the above. But I'd like to propose another factor at play here: The Obama administration has been deliberately and skillfully "working the refs," playing into the media's natural suspicion of Republican misinformation and exploiting its regrets over Harry & Louise, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and Elizabeth McCaughey. Let me explain….

In 2002, left-wing media grumpus Eric Alterman wrote a book entitled What Liberal Media? The Truth about BIAS and the News (the Bias in question being Bernard Goldberg's best-selling memoir about witnessing liberal media distortion up close at CBS News). I don't agree with Alterman about much, but one of his central critiques rang true: The savvier among conservatives had learned how to "work the refs"—badger the allegedly impartial arbiters of the Fourth Estate in such a way to produce rulings more favorable to the opposing team. Here's Alterman's gotcha quote underlying the notion:  

Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, complained during the 1992 election, "I think we know who the media want to win this election–and I don't think it's George Bush." The very same Rich Bond, however, also noted during the very same election, "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media]…. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."

There were two crucial preconditions for this tactic to work: A professional commitment to down-the-middle "fairness," in which news organizations strove to give "both sides" an equal hearing, and the "he said, she said" style of  political argumentation, which allegedly gave the bigger bloviators of the right a built-in advantage.

Again, there is much one could disagree with about Alterman's influential conclusions, but I would posit this fact as inarguable: Since his book was published, journalistic mores and practices have moved heavily away from the ideal of giving equal weight to both sides. Now, all the hot journalism-theory action, and a sizeable amount of practice, is about shredding "false equivalence," rejecting the "view from nowhere," and circumventing the spinmeisters by fact-checking political lies at their source.

Now here's the rub: Barack Obama and his handlers (including many top former journalists) know all this, speak that language, and use it to feed into journalists' pre-existing suspicion that conservatives have a uniquely nasty habit of telling untruths.


Here's a 2012 New York Times piece about Obama's views on journalism:

In private meetings with columnists, he has talked about the concept of "false balance" — that reporters should not give equal weight to both sides of an argument when one side is factually incorrect. He frequently cites the coverage of health care and the stimulus package as examples, according to aides familiar with the meetings.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, was previously Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. He said the president thought that some journalists were more comfortable blaming both parties, regardless of the facts. "To be saying 'they're both equally wrong' or 'they're both equally bad,'" Mr. Carney said, "then you look high-minded."

Such ref-working has its payoffs. In its special 2012 Democratic National Convention issue, Time magazine quoted the president as saying "the facts are on my side in this argument [about the economy]. The question is whether, while we're still digging ourselves out of this hole that we found ourselves in, the facts will win the day."

Did the venerable newsweekly take the bait? Hook, line, and sinker. Managing Editor Richard Stengel, in his editor's note, wrote that, "One theme running through this special Democratic Convention issue is that Obama has not been all that adept at telling his story as Commander in Chief….He likes to say that facts will win the day, but these days, people brandish their own facts. Obama is frustrated by this." One year later, Stengel took a job at Obama's State Department

One of the key reasons such mau-mauing works is that the media establishment feels no small measure of shame in how it has been played by conservatives during political fights since the end of the Cold War. Particularly when it comes to health insurance reform.

One of the half-dozen most influential media-criticism books in the last two decades was James Fallows's Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine Democracy, from 1996. In it, there's a 29-page section on coverage of the ultimately failed Hillarycare initative, titled "The Press's Vietnam War: The Health Care Debate." Fallows took issue with journalists' horse-race-style coverage, their "fear-mongering," and their reliance on leaks. But the two lasting stings from his critique had to do with press incompetence and impotence in the face of Republican "misinformation." 

The first was the famous "Harry & Louise" ad campaign, paid for by the Health Insurance Association of America, warning that a new government health care plan could drastically reduce consumer choice. (Peter Suderman yesterday described this campaign as leaving Democrats "with a big psychological scar.") In Fallows's telling, reporters mistakenly elevated the importance of the commercials, giving them hours of valuable free air time, because they were broadcast in places political reporters (unlike the general public) happened to watch, and served as ready-made audio-visual aids to the horse-race story that the Clinton White House was losing traction in the debate. 

The second key misinformation-related media misstep was The New Republic's award-winning February 1994 deep read into Hillarycare called "No Exit," by the Manhattan Institute's Elizabeth McCaughey. "Her discoveries were terrifying," Fallows wrote, but "her article contained two kinds of minsinterpretations which together gave a completely distorted picture of what the bill would do." (For a more detailed appraisal of the article, read the modern New Republic.)

Key here to the evolution of media thinking is what happened next. In Fallows's telling, the article's inaccuracy-riddled case against the bill was amplified by George Will, Rush Limbaugh, and Republican opportunists. "As McCaughey's claims took on momentum and a life of their own…a journalistic establishment devoted to helping Americans resolve this issue would have examined criticisms of the plan, as well as the plan itself," he wrote. Instead of that, "because McCaughey and her arguments had affected the prospects for the rest of the participants, they could be talked about without ever being examined." 

By the time Washington's next great heave toward health care reform got underway, there was no way that the newly emboldened press, then jumping enthusiastically into the "fact-checking" business, was going to let the irresponsible Republican spin machine pollute and derail such an important policy discussion again. After all, they'd seen that conservatives would "swift-boat" Democrats using the flimsiest of arguments, and many of Washington's most respected thinkers were using their recently enhanced lie-detectors to produce such unblinking judgments as "Let's Just Say it: Republicans Are the Problem."


So instead of diving into the factual claims of a sitting president trying to wrestle through a major piece of domestic legislation, journalists spent thousands of column inches and hundreds of academic hours dissecting a single Facebook post by Sarah Palin. Instead of investigating the stated policy fears of anti-Obamacare townhall participants in the summer of 2009, many commentators chose to interpret those worries as unstated racism, and make wildly inaccurate predictions about an upsurge in right-wing violence. And at every step of the way, the president made sure to couple his own truth-bending efforts with journalist-pleasing claims denouncing "misinformation" and false equivalence. As recently as yesterday, the White House blog had the temerity to issue a "fact-check" correcting misapprehensions about the Obamacare rollout.

The above should not be read as blanket claims about the entire press corps; many individual journalists (including/especially those with fixed political ideologies) have been producing fine work on the Affordable Care Act for years, some of which you can see linked to in Nyhan's CJR piece. Factcheck.org, for example, has ample reason to be proud of its efforts. But if you're searching for answers about why so many news organizations find themselves a bit surprised this week, it's worth gazing into recent media-criticism history, and remembering that anyone wielding government power will look to exploit whatever the refs might give them.