Say it Ain’t So, Joe

Online outlets lead coverage of Joe Lieberman's health reform reversal

It became cliché long ago to note how the online political discourse can take on a life of its own, but still: it was striking, Monday, how little of the fevered, and in some places ubiquitous, discussion regarding Joe Lieberman’s efforts to (selfishly gut health reform/nobly stand on principle) was reflected by our leading national newspapers. And, more to the point, how little of the much-discussed reporting on Lieberman’s role, and the response it was precipitating from the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress, came from those papers.

The latest round of crisis in the health care debate kicked off Sunday, when Lieberman, whose penchant for aggravating liberals is well-established, announced that he would not support the Medicare buy-in program that had been floated as a last-minute alternative to the controversial public option. This sparked a flurry of commentary among health care reform supporters to explain the maddening and unpredictable shifts in Lieberman’s position, sort of like early farmers interpreting bad weather as the result of a capricious and vengeful god. (A few leading theories: He’s in hock to the insurance interests. He’s sociopathically indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Also, he’s just plain dumb. No, wait, he’s actually smart, and just wants to stick it to liberals. Yeah—he really wants to stick it to liberals. And, from the other side of the political aisle: Joementum’s back!)

The Web is, of course, the natural home for this sort of theorizing, not to mention the campaigns—to secure funding pledges for his future opponent, and to force the Susan G. Komen foundation to cut ties with his wife—that have emerged from the more activism- and advocacy-oriented portions of the blogosphere. What was striking Monday was how the new reporting about developments in D.C.—in particular, the way that the White House and Senate leadership were responding to Lieberman’s move—was coming from Web-only, or Web-primary, outlets.

This coverage was kicked off by Carrie Budoff Brown’s report in Politico that the White House was pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to strike a deal with Lieberman, in order to keep talks moving. A White House spokesman denied the report, but, as Brown noted in a later version of the story, her source “reaffirmed the account.” And her reporting was backed up by coverage from other outlets. In The Huffington Post, Ryan Grim reported that White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had personally visited Reid. At Talking Points Memo, Brian Beutler later reported the same thing, with a little more detail. And at, Jon Cohn wrote that he was hearing the same thing Brown had reported.

Meanwhile, at The Plum Line, Greg Sargent obtained and posted video of Lieberman endorsing the concept of a Medicare buy-in just three months ago during an interview with the Connecticut Post. The footage quickly made the rounds among liberal blogs, where it provided further evidence of Lieberman’s bad faith and inconsistent positions.

Given the profusion of both commentary and reporting, readers of these sites had ample context to draw on when, Monday evening, members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus emerged from a special meeting at which Reid apparently indicated that both the public option and the Medicare buy-in would be dropped from the bill. The Huffington Post’s main page featured the banner headline “Lieberman Wins!”; the site’s editors could be confident their readers would understand what that meant.

At the leading newspaper sites, though, that wasn’t the case, because the papers’ news sections had given far less attention to the day’s events as they unfolded. At The Washington Post, uber-blogger Ezra Klein spent the day flagging developments and joining the chorus of Lieberman’s liberal critics; for his trouble, he was attacked by his Post colleague Charles Lane and defended by Harold Meyerson. (Klein also defended himself). But if the machinations were tracked for readers during the day by a Post reporter, that coverage wasn’t easy to find. It was the same story at The New York Times, where the “Prescriptions” blog made no mention of the reported White House pressure to strike a deal.

The situation was modified, somewhat, by the major papers’ end-of-day accounts. The NYT story portrays Lieberman as the key actor in this drama, and as quite pleased with himself; it also notes his apparent reversal on the subject of a Medicare buy-in. The Wall Street Journal follows a similar, if less colorful, approach. The Post’s article, meanwhile, doesn’t mention Lieberman until the seventh paragraph of his story, and makes no mention of his prior support for the Medicare program.

Even accounting for those stories, a reader of one, or all, of the major papers had a strikingly different experience than a reader of the leading Web outlets. (In particular, even in their main stories the papers pay scant attention to the question of White House intervention, which was a major topic on the Internet.) The reasons for that are understandable—both Joe Lieberman and the public option are subjects of intense interest among liberals, so this story was in the HuffPo/TPM wheelhouse; the intrigue about the White House’s message to Capitol Hill, meanwhile, was up Politico’s alley. And this is a case where more information may be a barrier to understanding; the nugget about Emanuel’s directive to Reid, while newsworthy if true, is also the sort of thing that can feed conspiracy theories about the White House’s role and obscure real accountability.

With all those caveats in place, though, Monday was a big day in the health care debate, one in which the months-long battle over the public option may have been resolved. It was a time of heightened interest for many, many partisan observers who feel a stake in the outcome, and a time when key decisions were being made. And for that day, at least, it was the newcomers who responded to readers’ hunger for news.

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