As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Lies Of Steele

Michael Steele doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to health care. This is an uncontroversial statement. He's still talking about death panels and rationing, and he's still vowing to keep government hands off of seniors' Medicare. He's talking about the $500 billion that can be excised from Medicare and Medicaid payments, through reducing lobbyist-driven overpayments to things like Medicare Advantage that do nothing to improve treatment, as if those are direct reductions of Medicare outcomes for patients.

They are lies. And Steele's column is a collection of outright lies. But considering that this is no penalty for lying, you can hardly blame Steele for getting away with as much as possible.

Howard Kurtz moans that the "death panels" wouldn't die in spite of journalistsic efforts to debunk the ridiculous notion, writing that "even when they report the facts, [journalists] have had trouble influencing public opinion" and calling the experience "a stunning illustration of the traditional media's impotence." Let me identify a problem that has helped create this impotence: a lack of follow-through.

Having identified Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Grassley, John McCain and, today, Michael Steele, as spreading falsehoods about health care reform even after they have been broadly discredited, will the journalists Kurtz mentions offer them any sanction? Or will these public figures continue to be extensively quoted in newspapers and on television?

We saw another one this week, as Fox News decided to bring us the new scare tactic, "death books." But media like those Kurtz cover have two choices in this respect. They can ignore the lie, and let it confine itself to Fox News, Drudge, the right-wing blogosphere and talk radio, which is arguably larger than the traditional media's reach. Or they can report on the lie, debunk it, and hope their debunk trumps the initial lie. Now, I don't really respect how media covers the lies, by hyping them endlessly and getting around to the debunks a few days later. But Kevin Drum is on to something here.

It's true: crankery used to go largely unreported. But that's not much of an option these days — or at least, the media doesn't treat it as an option. And the reason is obvious: crankery isn't limited to beady-eyed obsessives with mimeograph machines in their basements anymore. It's beamed out in practically raw form to an enormous audience by Drudge, talk radio, Fox News, and the blog/Twitter/Facebook channel. Once that's happened, mainstream outlets don't feel like it's ignorable.

Plus there's the fact that although news pages (and perhaps the straight news reports from TV anchors) may have mostly debunked the death panel story, op-ed pages and chat shows retailed it with vigor. What's more, even in the news pages most of the debunkings came days or even weeks after the crankery had already reached a fever pitch.

What do do? Fighting back is the obvious answer, but that's a two-edged sword since it also gives the crankery an even higher profile. Ditto for faster reaction from the news desks.

I dunno. We now live in an era of mass-market crankery ("saturation bullshitting," in g.powell's memorable phrase), and that's that. Either some bright cognitive researcher needs to figure out how to actually fight crankery, or else the rest of us have to figure out how to get things done even in the face of a permanent lunatic fringe. All legal ideas welcome.

I believe that progressives and Democrats could go on the offensive a bit more, and make Republicans defend their own positions rather than allowing them the space to concoct false memes about the opposition. But with Washington still wired for conservatism, and Drudge still the traditional media assignment editor, there's not a lot to do here. You will always have that push and pull between giving lies legitimacy and letting them fester unanswered.

I do agree with Matt Yglesias' assessment of Steele's op-ed, particularly its appearance in the Washington Post. If the claims in an op-ed aren't factual, newspapers are not required to print them.

So congratulations to Fred Hiatt for landing such a buzzworthy piece of nonsense for his publication and I hope the right-wing enjoys the giant tax hikes we’ll be enacting down the road once they show the political world that any attempt to trim Medicare spending, no matter how modest, will be savaged by opportunists on the other side.

Yep. Seems to me like Steele and his counterparts are walking right into a trap here, even if it's not realized for decades.

...I liked Anthony Weiner's take: "I have never heard such a ringing defense of a single-payer program like Medicare than I heard from Michael Steele today."

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