He-Said, She-Said on Medicare

The Times gets stuck on the surface of the Medicare debate

The dispatch from Strongsville, Ohio in today’s New York Times, about Barack Obama’s efforts to rally public support for his health care plan, is standard stuff: a recounting of what the president said, an explanation of his political strategy, and a dollop of cynicism to demonstrate the press knows how the game is played. (The story of a working-class cancer patient who wrote to the president about her struggle to find coverage, and was unable to introduce Obama because a new leukemia diagnosis put her in the hospital, is described as a “drama” that “could not have been more suited to his purposes had he scripted it.”)

This is all fine—covering legislative and PR strategy is an important part of covering politics, and not every news story can be an exegesis on substantive debates. The problem comes when the story does briefly touch on matters of substance, in a paragraph near its conclusion (emphasis added):

Ms. Canfield, of course, was hardly the only reason Mr. Obama visited Ohio. He wanted to visit older Americans at the recreation center to address Republican criticisms that his bill would make dangerous cuts in Medicare — a claim Mr. Obama called false and insidious. And he is trying to sway reluctant Democrats.

That’s the sum total of what the article has to say about Medicare. It’s he-said, she-said journalism in its purest form, and it’s uninteresting, uninformative, and ultimately unhelpful to readers.

Look—health care reform is complicated business, and Medicare is especially so. CJR’s own Trudy Lieberman has returned to the subject many times during her exhaustive coverage of the health care debate, exploring such issues as what the program needs to become sustainable, whether to take scare stories from doctors at face value, how it puts disabled people at a disadvantage, and what beneficiaries need to know about their future costs. It would be unrealistic to expect the story-of-the-day to get into these topics.

For that matter, it’s probably unrealistic to expect a story like this to try to offer a verdict on, for example, the potential effect of cuts in medical spending. That’s a complicated task too, and the Times has people like Dave Leonhardt and Reed Abelson on staff to delve into it.

At a minimum, though, if a news story is going to make reference to a political debate over proposed changes to Medicare policy, shouldn’t it spare a sentence or two for what those changes actually are? Here the situation is still complex, but not insuperably so, especially if you limit it to what the president is pushing for. Obama has been an advocate, since the reform debate began, for an independent commission that could put downward pressure on Medicare spending. He also wants to cut payments to Medicare Advantage plans, and has endorsed a variety of initiatives that would purportedly go after waste in the system. At the same time, he says he wants to close the “donut hole” in the prescription drug benefit. (You can read all about it at the White House Web site here.)

A quick recap of the policies in play might equip engaged readers to better understand the debate, and to go do the legwork to make their own decision. (As written, it’s not even clear which of the proposed Medicare changes Republicans are attacking, and which Obama is defending.) The Times could even help readers do that by linking to its own more substantive coverage, rather than leaving them with the frustration of having hit a dead end. (And no, the link embedded in the story to the Times Topics page for Medicare doesn’t really do the trick.)

And if, for some reason, even that is too much to ask, the story’s probably better off without this sentence entirely. To borrow a line from kindergarten: if you can’t say anything useful, better not to say anything at all.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.