A little press tale that blew out of the Kansas plains a couple weeks ago shows the value that media factcheckers can have in setting the record straight. It also shows how many opportunities there still are for newsrooms around the country to embrace the factchecking spirit—and for those who have the spirit to keep honing their approach.
The episode began when Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party Republican who represents the vast area of western Kansas and is no fan of the Affordable Care Act, came forth at a town hall meeting on April 14 in Salina with this pronouncement:
“It’s hard to get accurate information on anything. But the numbers we see today is that—as I understand them—we believe there are more people uninsured today in Kansas than there were before the president’s healthcare plan went into effect. And I thought the goal was to bring more people into insurance.”
A few days later, he made a very similar claim, with less hedging, at a town hall in Hays:
“There are more folks uninsured today in our district, we believe, than were uninsured before Obamacare kicked in.”
Really? There are plenty of hard questions to ask about the post-healthcare reform landscape, as we’ve written. But more people uninsured in mid-April than before exchange enrollment opened last fall and the individual mandate went into effect? Or, depending on your definition of when Obamacare “kicked in,” more uninsured than before 2010, when a provision allowing grown children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance went into effect? Even in Kansas, which has refused to expand Medicaid, and where a strong antigovernment streak might have discouraged people from signing up?
If the congressman’s implausible claims proved correct, that would be a good story in its own right. If not, they demand some debunking to set the record straight: The ACA is clearly going to be a major campaign theme this fall, and these were claims about one of its fundamental goals. So the statements warranted a check of the numbers and some close scrutiny—but, especially at the start, they got little of either in the local coverage.
The Salina Journal covered the town hall in its community, but not a word appeared about the uninsured. The story focused instead on Huelskamp’s comments about the budget, federal debt, and regulations; some of those assertions invited scrutiny, too, which they didn’t get. A few days later, on April 18, The Hays Daily News did spotlight Huelskamp’s ACA commentary in its town hall story. That article scores some points by presenting necessary counter-evidence to the congressman’s claim that a federal board is “rationing” healthcare—but unfortunately, it didn’t tackle Huelskamp’s “more folks uninsured” comment, which ran up high in the story.
The same day, some scrutiny of that claim did start to kick in, from national outlets. A reporter for The Huffington Post, working off video of the Salina town hall, checked out Huelskamp’s claim and found it unsubstantiated. A week later, Washington Post factchecker Glenn Kessler did some more digging and came to the same conclusion: “there [are] no up-to-date data, but the available figures concerning young adults and exchange enrollments provide good evidence that the law has led to a decrease in the number of uninsured.” Kessler gave Huelskamp four Pinocchios, his worst rating, for his use of “phony facts.” (Huelskamp’s office finally replied to Kessler after the column was posted. The most recent data they cited to support the congressman’s claim was from 2012.)
We still don’t have good survey numbers, but since Kessler’s column appeared, we have gotten a little more data. A recent report from the Department of Health and Human Services shows 57,013 Kansas residents selected a plan on the federally-run exchange during the first open-enrollment period. Charles Gaba, who runs ACASignups.net—which has emerged as an important authority on Obamacare enrollment figures—told CJR that factoring in new eligibility determinations for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, plus off-exchange enrollments, somewhere in the neighborhood of 120,000 Kansas might have new insurance policies since the fall. A big chunk, and perhaps a majority, of these people were likely previously insured—but the figures still point to a decrease in the numbers of uninsured on the order of tens of thousands of people since the fall, especially when you consider Kessler’s reporting that reports of canceled plans in the state turned out to be overblown. “Bottom line, Rep. Huelskamp appears to be utterly full of hooey,” Gaba said.
After Kessler’s column appeared, word did start to filter back to Kansas. The Wichita Eagle’s editorial blog picked up the Post piece. So did Bryan Thompson of Kansas Public Radio, whose account of the matter also appeared on the Kansas Health Institute blog and on HutchPost.com, which serves the city of Hutchinson, in Huelskamp’s district. The factcheck also got a brief mention in The Clay Center Dispatch. Most notably, it was fodder for commentary in The Scott Country Record and the foundation for a tough editorial in The Hays Daily News, which ran under the headline “Little white lies.”
It was good to see Kessler’s conclusions get picked up beyond the Beltway—and especially good to see a few local outlets making the case against Huelskamp’s misinformation in their own strong words. But it also sure seems that, if Kessler hadn’t weighed in, Huelskamp’s comments would have gone unchecked.
At The Hays Daily News, reporter Matthew Kenwright said he did try to factcheck Huelskamp’s claim at the time but couldn’t find up-to-date numbers, so decided to let the quote stand. Editor and publisher Patrick Lowry, who wrote the later editorial, said, “I don’t have the research staff to factcheck everything that comes out of these guys’ mouths.” The paper mainly covers Huelskamp when he comes to town, Lowry said, or picks up wire coverage in which he’s featured—sometimes for use in editorials, as in this case. “He’s actually prone to making lot of outlandish remarks, to put it mildly,” Lowry added. “Some of it just becomes noise. You become a little bit numb to a lot of these remarks.”
At the Salina Journal, deputy editor Sharon Montague seemed unaware of the controversy over Huelskamp’s remarks when contacted by CJR. She said the Journal had done no follow-up to its first story, which hadn’t noted the comments at all, and explained the paper pretty much covers the congressman when he comes through for a town hall meeting.
The resource constraints are real, and the local focus is understandable. Small papers in particular can’t go after every bit of political “noise.” But they can do better in situations like this one. Huelskamp was making a basic empirical claim about the local impact of the most important federal law passed in the Obama era. That’s newsworthy. And the congressman, who won 73 percent of the vote in 2010 and ran unopposed in 2012, is a credible information source for many people in his district—if he makes repeated claims like this and they go unchallenged, people will accept them. Factchecking doesn’t always take long, if you know where to look. (Here’s Gaba’s contact page; he’s very responsive.) And when reporters do try to vet a questionable claim but can’t find solid data, as in The Hays Daily News article, they should note that—and note that the politician speaking couldn’t substantiate the claim. Or, leave the quote unreported until you’ve had a chance to check it out—but then, check it out.
One last point: the number of uninsured would really go down if the state took federal funds to expand Medicaid to the 78,000 Kansans who could be eligible for the program under Obamacare but are now in the “coverage gap.” But that’s a problem of Kansas politics, as Huelskamp and the state’s media surely know. It’s not a consequence of the ACA. It’s a point that was made in the Scott Country Record and Hays Daily News editorials. Any more help the media can offer to help Kansans understand that and set the record straight is all to the good.
CJR correspondent Deron Lee provided research and reporting for this post.