Trying To Exit
Andrew Sullivan, 15 years after the fact, kinda sorta apologizes for Betsy McCaughey but not really, calling it not his finest hour but saying that he was somehow roped into publishing it:
I do not think it's professional to air the specifics of internal battles after the fact, and I take full responsibility for being the editor of the magazine that published the piece. I accepted an award for it. I stood behind it. In my view, it had many interesting points and as an intellectual exercize in contemplating the full possible consequences of Hillary Clinton's proposal, it was provocative and well worth running. But its premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried. One key paragraph - critical to framing the piece so it was not a declaration of fact but an assertion of what might happen if worst came to worst - became a battlefield with her for days; and all I can say is, I lost. I guess I could have quit. Maybe I should have. I decided I would run the piece but follow it with as much dissent and criticism as possible. I did discover that she was completely resistant to rational give-and-take. It was her way or the highway [...]
Again, I take responsibility.
This is taking responsibility? Who else but the editor of the magazine should be responsible for its content? Who was Sullivan fighting with, as the editor of the magazine, that forced him to label the piece as fact instead of as one woman's opinion? Martin Peretz? Betsy McCaughey herself, as he seems to intimate here? Who was in charge? As Kevin Drum says, he surely owes us the rest of this story. As much as Sullivan tries to discount it, the piece was crucial to killing health reform:
But look: it was one piece in a magazine. It's being treated as if it were a turning point in history. Please. There's one reason the Clinton healthcare bill failed and it isn't Betsy McCaughey. It's Hillary Clinton.
Sullivan is offering the "innocent bystander" theory of journalism, where journalists have no effect on public opinion. In this case, it's mixed in with his visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton, which is nonsense. But the original "No Exit" had huge implications for the health care debate in 1994, not least of which because of its impact on OTHER JOURNALISTS. They figured that McCaughey had some kind of authority and took her claims as important ones, which they subsequently disseminated across the media. That's how opinion leaders get their information, and that dribbles down into the public at large. There is no question that the article hurt health care reform, and Sullivan doesn't want the responsibility, so he tries to wriggle off the hook. In fact, he was defending the article a couple years ago before McCaughey resurfaced. Sullivan's mistake actually has affected the health care debate TODAY, 15 years later, by making McCaughey's claims viable, at least to conservatives who knew how to use them. And he doesn't come out of this exchange looking good.
When an editor publishes something that he admits that he knew at the time to be false--"[McCaughey's] premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried"--there should be consequences.
And I think there should be consequences for the Atlantic Monthly, and for other publications that continue to employ Andrew Sullivan.
As Ezra Klein says, that Sullivan won't defend McCaughey anymore shows how toxic she is, though she still manages to get on the teevee at will. But this is a very weak effort to bury the past.