October 5, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In a Caucus blogpost published at 10 am ET Thursday, New York Times reporters Michael Cooper, Abby Goodnough and Robert Pear did a little fact-checking into the claims the presidential candidates made during Wednesday’s debate. First off, they wrote, “Mr. Romney sharply criticized Mr. Obama’s health care law, falsely suggesting that it would allow the federal government to ‘take over health care.’” (All emphasis mine.) That’s pretty straightforward: during a televised debate, which 67.2 million Americans reportedly watched, Mitt Romney made a false charge about the very nature of the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a ObamaCare.
Now, let’s look at what happened to that assertion when Cooper, writing with David Kocieniewski and Jackie Calmes with an assist from Ashley Parker, wrote a similar piece for the print edition of today’s New York Times, also published online late Thursday night. The article contains no mention whatsoever of Romney’s “false suggestion” about the nature of the Affordable Care Act. The print report “disappears” Romney’s “false suggestion.”
In the linked Caucus blogpost, Cooper and company also write an extensive rebuttal to Romney’s debate claim that he plans to make sure Americans with pre-existing medical conditions can get insurance coverage:
Mr. Obama said that if Mr. Romney repeals his health care law, insurers would no longer be required to provide coverage to people with pre-existing medical problems. Mr. Romney countered that ‘pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.’
Mr. Romney made a similar claim in an appearance last month on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press.’ At the time, he said, ‘I’m not getting rid of all of health care reform. Of course, there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I’m going to put in place. One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.’
But Mr. Romney’s aides later clarified that he would only explicitly guarantee insurance for people with pre-existing conditions if they have maintained coverage with no significant lapses. That could exclude millions of Americans with conditions like cancer, heart disease and asthma.
Breaks in coverage are common. A recent report by the Commonwealth Fund found that 89 million Americans went without health insurance for at least one month in the period from 2004 to 2007, perhaps because they had lost jobs, been divorced or lost eligibility for a public insurance program.
For people who have not been continuously insured, Mr. Romney says many of them could get coverage through health plans known as high-risk pools. Many states have such pools, which generally operate at a loss. And the federal government is running a high-risk pool, as a temporary measure under the new health care law, in more than 20 states.
But Mr. Romney has not provided details, like whether or how he would regulate premiums or subsidize the high cost of coverage in a high-risk pool.
A 1996 federal law already limits the ability of health plans to exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions. But under that law, consumers may lose some of their rights if, for example, they do not buy an individual insurance policy within 63 days of losing group coverage. Mr. Obama said during the debate that Mr. Romney’s plan only duplicates what is ‘already the law, and that doesn’t help the millions of people out there with pre-existing conditions.’
Let’s see how that long exposition, which thoroughly debunks Romney’s pretense that he would cover pre-existing conditions, translates into the print edition of the Times:
Mr. Romney suggested at the debate that while he would repeal the president’s health care law, he would retain one of its most popular provisions, saying, ‘I do have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions.’ But his plan could exclude millions of people, since it would explicitly guarantee insurance only if they have maintained coverage with no significant lapses.
The “debunking” gets one vague sentence, virtually neutered by the conditional word “could.” The print story goes on to report on Romney’s debate remarks on educational assistance and on tax policy.
The print report by Cooper, Kocieniewski and Calmes appears under the headline “Entering Stage Right, Romney Moved to Center.” In typical he-said/she-said Times reporting, the writers note that “The Romney campaign rejected the notion that Mr. Romney had shifted to the middle in tone or substance….” The reporters let Obama himself do the Democratic he-said, quoting a remark he made on the campaign trail yesterday. But the Times reporters suggest Obama’s complaint is nothing more than a diversionary tactic. They write, “Democrats seized on Mr. Romney’s shift, after many pundits proclaimed that Mr. Obama had done poorly in the debate.” The implication is, of course, that Democrats’ complaints are not credible. A few paragraphs later, the reporters let a Romney spokesperson elaborate on their own suggestion:
The Romney campaign dismissed the criticisms, suggesting that Democrats were simply trying to change the subject from the president’s poorly received debate performance. ‘In full damage-control mode, President Obama today offered no defense of his record and no vision for the future,’ Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, said in a statement.
What is more important than their assessment of Democrats’ motives is how the New York Times reporters handle any false or misleading statements Romney made in his “move to the center.” As it turns out, Times reporters – including Michael Cooper and Jackie Calmes – debunked a number of Romney’s claims covered in this report. They just didn’t do so for this report. Or anywhere in the print edition. Rather, they did their fact-checking during or shortly after the presidential debate, and it is available only to online users. In the online liveblog, Calmes was willing to write, “Mr. Romney says Mr. Obama doubled the deficit. That is not true.” (Entry at 9:37 pm.) Pretty blunt assessment. Cooper wrote, “Mr. Romney, as he often does, just invoked the plight of small businesses when criticizing Mr. Obama’s plan to let the Bush-era income tax cuts for the highest earning Americans expire…. But relatively few small businesses would be hit with the tax increase….” (Entry at 9:33 pm.) De-BUNKED!
But look how Cooper and Calmes, et al., handle Mitt’s mendacity in this print report:
This week, he pivoted to the center, as many political analysts had long expected him to do, seeking to appeal to more centrist general election voters. In doing so, Mr. Romney used striking new language to describe his policy proposals on taxes, education and health care in ways that may assuage independent voters — but which may be sowing confusion about how Mr. Romney would govern.
Romney’s move to the center was “long expected”: that is, it is natural; it’s what politicians usually do. Romney used “striking new language.”: the reporters characterize Romney’s shift as a semantic rather than a substantive one. He’s just using, you know, different words to convey the same old message, even though he “may be sowing confusion.” Again, no policy change, just language so different it may be hard for some people to recognize the old policies in their new clothes. The reporters do briefly suggest that during the debate Romney changed his policy on educational aid. And they do suggest he “could” be misleading about his policy on pre-existing conditions. They leave unclear whether or not he changed position on tax policy – perhaps the most important element of his platform, since it could affect every American. The reader may indeed be “confused” after reading this New York Times report.
Lest I leave the impression that it is just this particular New York Times report that falls short of adequately describing Romney’s “October Surprise,” I should add that Cooper and company are not alone. In another report that appears in today’s print edition of the Times – this one written by Jim Rutenberg and Peter Baker with assists from Mark Landler, Ashley Parker and Jeff Zeleny – the reporters write that during the debate, Romney was “using a softer tone, promising that he would provide plenty of money for education and saying that his tax plan would not reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthy.” Really? “A softer tone”? How is denying your previously stated policy positions for education and taxes merely a change in “tone”?
The New York Times has apparently hit on a formula for describing Romney 8.0 Beta: the Newest Romney is a candidate who is employing some kindlier, gentler phraseology to explain his longstanding policies. Oddly, the Times writers reserve their own kindlier, gentler language for the print newspaper. In the online paper, they are more willing to use honest language to debunk Romney’s false assertions and expose his sudden flip-flops. I don’t know why this is. But the New York Times uses a sophisticated data bank to tell them who their print readers are. It is not implausible that people who read only the print edition of the paper are older and more conservative – that is, more prone to be Romney voters. Maybe “using a softer tone” while gliding gingerly over Mitt’s mendacity is part of the New York Times business model. It appeals to their print readers.
Remembrances of Arthur O. “Punch” Sulzberger, the New York Times‘ long-time owner-publisher who died last week, emphasize his dedication to journalistic independence. Max Frankel, who served as executive editor under “Punch,” remembers “a time when a major corporation withdrew all its advertising to protest some truthful yet embarrassing articles. Punch went hat in hand for weeks to woo it back, but months passed before he ever told any of us in the newsroom about the grief we had inadvertently caused him.” I am not too sure Punch’s son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., who now runs the paper, shares his father’s dedication to journalistic integrity. The differences between what appears in the print and online editions of the New York Times suggest a business expediency, not journalistic judgment.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com