A Story That We’d Rather Not See

A cop-out at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took the easy road on Sunday when it set out to enlighten readers about the health care proposals of John McCain and Barack Obama. It simply quoted from their campaign speeches and then labeled the story “Issue in-depth: health care: in their own words…”. The story was all their own words, all right, but there was nothing in-depth about the paper’s treatment of the subject. The Journal-Constitution lifted seven graphs from an Obama speech last June in Bristol, Virginia, and eight graphs from a McCain speech given in Cleveland last May. At the end was a bullet point summary of the candidates’ proposals. That was it.

One would think that if the paper were going to take a shortcut around analysis and explanation, it would at least pick something more current to quote. Some information offered to readers was stale. For example, it allowed Obama to say that “we’ll lower premiums by up to $2,500 for a typical family per year.” The New York Times challenged that number last summer, noting that experts doubt Obama can achieve such a reduction. In recent weeks, Obama has not used the $2,500 figure.

One bullet point noted that Obama proposed that the government pay insurers the same rate for offering Medicare Advantage plans—a special kind of Medicare benefits policy—as it pays for benefits under the traditional Medicare program. But there was no mention that, earlier this year, Congress did cut some of the extra money these plans were getting, in order to equalize the payments. That in itself should have been a good segue to discussion and explanation, but the Journal-Constitution missed the opportunity. I know newspapers have shrunk their staffs, but, geez, that’s no excuse for turning the news columns over to the candidates. After all, a campaign stump speech hardly merits the same sort of verbatim treatment that a state of the union address or a declaration of war might demand.

There was much for some enterprising reporter to dissect in those fifteen paragraphs. In the Obama section, the paper could have noted that the disease prevention touted as a panacea for rising costs is a flawed solution that might neither save much money nor improve health. In the McCain section, the paper could have pointed out that sick people have no choice when it comes to insurance carriers or policies.

Instead of simply quoting McCain’s claim that others “urge universal coverage with all the tax increases, new mandates and government regulation,” the AJC could have explained that McCain plans to tax the value of health benefits received by people who get insurance from their employers, and described what that would mean for people who have low incomes. Indeed, he plans a tax increase. I guess the Journal-Constitution could argue that it did mention that detail in passing, in the bullet point section: “Tax recipients of many employer-sponsored health plans and provide a $2,500 tax credit for individuals ($5,000 for families as an incentive to purchase private health coverage.)” How’s that for wonk talk?

A newspaper like the Journal-Constitution once would have done better.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.