Fallows: “I Was Wrong.”

The masterful James Fallows—an expert on McCaugheyology by virtue of researching her influence on the Clinton health care plan for his 1995 Atlantic article, “A Triumph of Misinformation,” and 1996 book, Breaking the News—has a moving and profoundly disturbing post on the current incarnation of the health care debate. Moving, because it is written by James Fallows. Disturbing, because it is, alas, entirely correct.

Fallows describes his two recent appearances on On the Media—in which he claimed that health care couldn’t again be McCaugheyed, if you will, as it was during the Clinton years. “Thanks to blogs, Wikis, and the rest, there was a more nimble check-and-balance built into the discussion of ideas these days,” Fallows writes. And “so, I confidently said to Bob Garfield of OTM, we’d seen a good side of today’s Web-based decentralized journalism. There were plenty of bad sides, but the new potential to stop charlatans was a plus.”

But: then came McCaughey’s claims about the ‘death panels’—which have effectively hijacked rational, fact-based discussion about the future of health care.

Thus, Fallows, on the moving/disturbing truth:

Beyond the facts, anyone who has had first-hand experience with modern end-of-life issues knows this is not something to demagogue. The combination of what is eternal, namely man’s mortality, and what is new, namely the frontiers of high-tech medicine, converts what has always been a painful, fraught, and central aspect of human existence into something with even more painful dilemmas and choices than in previous days. Seriously: I do not think that any decent person who has seen this process, up close, can imagine preaching to anyone else about the choices and consequences. It’s just too complicated and painful. And certainly any fair reading of the legislation indicated that it was designed to give individuals and their families more rather than less control over what are inevitably impossible choices about our loved ones and ourselves — to reduce the chances that anyone else could preach or dictate to them.

But the flow of argument makes it appear that “death panel” has won the battle of political ideas, as “no exit” did 15 years ago (and as the “birthers” have not done). For example, Charles Grassley seems to have bought it. I don’t know which interpretation is more depressing: that Grassley actually believes in death panels (ie, he’s irrational), or that he knows better but figures it’s smart to say he believes (ie, he’s craven). The political fundamentals, as I understand them, still favor the passage of some health-care bill. To that extent, Ms. McCaughey may indeed have been blunted. But I said two weeks ago that I thought today’s communications systems had caught up with people who invented facts. I was wrong.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.