Saturday, October 26, 2013

Media Fail - Obamacare Website Edition

If the media reporting on the launch of, the website for the Affordable Care Act, rings familiar, you are not alone. Google the word “glitch” and the thousands of hits that come back invariably describe how the rollout of the ACA website has happened. The conventional wisdom quickly hardened into a belief that this was a massive screw-up by the Administration suggesting that it was ill-prepared for the launch and put into question the law itself, as if people purchasing individual insurance plans was the entire program, that there weren't other ways to sign up (the phone) or that people still had months (literally) to secure coverage. The inevitable fallout, from a hastily convened Presidential event to a Congressional show trial, occurred as the media chorus, including the sainted Jon Stewart, all took a whack at the ACA piƱata.

Substitute any number of other tempests in a teapot that have occurred during the President’s time in office and you will see a similar narrative arc. Remember Shirley Sherrod? She was an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was recorded claiming to have discriminated against white people who sought aid from USDA. The media firestorm was immediate and intense – she was rebuked by the White House, by USDA Secretary Vilsack and of course, all spectrums of the media. Before anyone took the time to investigate the speech in question, she was out of a job. Only later did we find out that the videotape was doctored, the remarks taken out of context and that Ms. Sherrod had been helpful to many people, of all skin colors, in her job.

Was Sherrod too far in the distant past? How about the IRS “scandal.” You remember that one, right? Nefarious IRS employees surreptitiously placed conservative, tea party and other “right” leaning groups under double secret scrutiny. Again, the maelstrom was predictable – HUGE outrage from the right wing media, opprobrium from the “left” wing media (including Stewart!) over the actions of these otherwise anonymous bureaucrats, promises to get to the bottom of things by the President and of course, the Republican circus on the Hill. A week or so later, when reporters had actually taken the time to, you know, REPORT on the story, it turned out that few (if any) groups were denied what they requested – tax exemption – that “left wing” groups had also come under scrutiny and this was all done because of the IRS’s concern with ensuring compliance with an opinion issued by none other than the conservative Supreme Court. In other words, a bunch of groups that had, until recently, not been permitted to receive a REALLY generous government benefit (tax exemption) were scrutinized to make sure they were eligible to receive same. You don't say.

Lastly, and most recently, we had the situation in Syria. Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, the media and most Republicans were practically calling Obama “yellow” for NOT inserting troops on the ground and questioned his leadership. Cable news devoted endless hours to provide airtime for so-called experts to pillory our feckless Commander-in-Chief. Now? You never hear about Syria. Why? Oh, right. Because we negotiated a breakthrough agreement wherein Assad (1) admitted he had chemical weapons; (2) signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention; and (3) agreed to allow international experts to enter his country, take control of his stockpile and destroy it (which has now started).

That the media is hyper-focused on the never-ending news cycle is axiomatic, but the fool-me-once-shame-on-you-fool-me-twice-shame-on-me edict long ago went from farce to tragedy. The obsessive focus on the tick tock of political process stories long ago went from being uninformative to affirmatively misinforming the public, which simply feeds into the mistrust the citizenry has of government. It matters little that Shirley Sherrod was ultimately exonerated (even at the expense of an otherwise spotless career) or that the IRS was simply trying to make sure it followed the strictures of a Supreme Court opinion, Lois Lerner still retired in disgrace. Like newspaper corrections that run after-the-fact and buried 20 pages inside the fold, all that is remembered is the controversy not the fact. 

And these errors and omissions would be bad enough for failure to comply with basic standards of journalism (much less ethics) but when it comes to a subject as complex and critical as our nation's health care system, you would think the media would be even more judicious, not reckless. Instead, the ink was not dry on the re-opening of the federal government before the hard pivot to the supposed catastrophe of got started. The same cycle we saw regarding Shirley Sherrod, the IRS and Syria simply repeated itself - Republicans up in arms, Democrats on the defensive, and reporters viewed as sympathetic to the President piled on - adding great heat but little light.

Of course, the initial hair-on-fire reporting has predictably given way to more sober analysis – that the coverage people are seeking does not even kick in until early next year, that Republicans asked for patience and time to fix, you guessed it, “glitches” when Medicare Part D was rolled out in 2006, that the ACA has many other aspects, like preventative care, Medicaid expansion, allowing young adults to stay on their parents plan until age 26, and others that are salutary and unaffected by the website, that state exchanges are enrolling thousands of people each day, and even the federal exchange, which the media maligns so much, has enrolled 700,000 people. Oh, and the fact that 20 million people have visited suggests that there is a strong desire by those without insurance to learn more about this much maligned law.  In the meantime, resources are being directed to fix the problems on the website, updated briefings are being provided and in a few weeks, this will probably seem like a faint memory, but by then, the media and Republicans will have moved on to the next faux outrage. 

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