Denver Post ducks the $716 billion question

Real-time factchecking is hard, but coverage of House debate was just too thin

COLORADO — Political reporting has become an even tougher job, as journalists face demands both to report the news faster than ever and to do more to hold politicians accountable for their rhetoric. As Justin Peters wrote recently at CJR, the challenge of speeding up the factcheck cycle is one we haven’t quite cracked yet.

But when a particular talking point has been debated, interrogated, and analyzed often enough, even a reporter working on deadline should be prepared to offer needed context and, if necessary, to rebut a misleading claim. So it was disappointing to see how, in its coverage of a congressional debate here this week, The Denver Post handled the much-discussed—and widely challenged—Republican critique that healthcare reform will cut Medicare by $716 billion.

The debate pitted incumbent Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger Joe Miklosi, who are battling for a seat in the newly redrawn 6th Congressional District, in the Denver suburbs. Miklosi and Coffman faced off Tuesday night at a Denver television studio. (The race is considered a toss-up by both The Washington Post and Real Clear Politics.)

The debate won’t actually air until next week, so for the time being all voters have to go on is the account of reporters who were there. Here’s Denver Post reporter Kurtis Lee’s article, which was posted online soon after the debate ended:

In turn, Coffman asked Miklosi to explain his support of the Affordable Care Act—commonly referred to as “Obamacare”—when it would take a projected $716 billion out of Medicare.

“Mr. Coffman, there’s not $716 billion in cuts that my friends on the right are trying to pretend—” said Miklosi.

“Those are CBO (Congressional Budget Office) numbers,” said the two-term incumbent, cutting off Miklosi in the tense exchange.

“But you’ re wrong, sir. There are no benefit cuts, those come from cost savings,” said Miklosi.

With that, the story moved onto a bit of big-picture analysis and the next topic of debate, never pausing to examine the accuracy of Coffman’s assertion on Medicare funds—or for that matter, Miklosi’s reply. Considering that the $716 billion complaint has been a leading GOP attack line for months, and has been factchecked many times, this sort of he-said/he-said isn’t good enough.

Had the Post delved into the issue, it might have noted that several nonpartisan health-care analysts and factchecking groups have found the thrust of the Republican challenge to be overstated, misleading, or even false. Obamacare did reduce the projected future growth of Medicare spending, and those savings “were used to help offset some of the anticipated costs of expanding health care for all Americans,” as Washington Post factchecker Glenn Kessler writes. But as a useful Aug. 17 FAQ from Kaiser Health News explains, those savings don’t come from benefit cuts:

The July report from Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation—in explaining where some of the biggest reductions would occur—found that hospital reimbursements would be reduced by $260 billion from 2013-2022, while federal payments to Medicare Advantage, the private insurance plans in Medicare, would be cut by approximately $156 billion. Other Medicare spending reductions include $39 billion less for skilled nursing services; $66 billion less for home health and $17 billion less for hospice. The law does not make any cuts to the amount of benefits beneficiaries receive and adds some new benefits, including closing the “doughnut hole” gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage, and new preventive services, such as an annual wellness visit with a physician.

Sometimes the GOP charge is that the change will hurt Medicare’s long-term solvency. took that claim on in an Aug. 24 post that opened this way:

Republicans claim the president’s $716 billion “cuts” to Medicare hurt the program’s finances. But the opposite is true. These cuts in the future growth of spending prolong the life of the Medicare trust fund, stretching the program’s finances out longer than they would last otherwise.

And scrutiny of the $716 billion figure has hardly disappeared from political coverage over the last couple months. Here’s part of The New York Times factcheck story on the first presidential debate—an article that was actually run by The Denver Post:

The charge that Mr. Obama took $716 billion from Medicare recipients to pay for “Obamacare” has several problems — not least the fact that Mr. Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan, included the identical savings in his budget plans that House Republicans voted for in the past two years.

… According to nonpartisan analysts, it is Mr. Romney who would both cut benefits and add costs for beneficiaries if he restored the $716 billion in reductions.

And, of course, CJR’s Trudy Lieberman has written about the GOP’s mischaracterizations of Obamacare and the Medicare reductions here, here, and here.

Of course, the Post doesn’t have to simply embrace what these analysts, factcheckers, and other journalists have said—ideally, the paper would do its own digging, which might yield different conclusions. Detailed factchecking of the Coffman-Miklosi exchange, meanwhile, would depend on just which arguments the candidates relied on, which isn’t quite clear in the Post story. As Lieberman notes, Republicans like Mitt Romney are increasingly making a slightly different claim—that the reduced reimbursement rates will cause providers to turn away Medicare patients, and so seniors will have reduced access to care. That’s a more sophisticated, and potentially more credible, argument that merits evaluation of its own.

But the point is that the discussion over Obamacare and Medicare is far too advanced, and has gone on far too long, to report, “This side said this, and the other side said that,” and leave it at that. With talking points this familiar, newsrooms should be prepared with a couple of explanatory paragraphs, ready to cut and paste, even in a deadline story.

Journalists have a responsibility to give readers context, background, and, within reason, the most current intelligence on a given topic. On the $716 billion question, the Post didn’t do that in its account of the Miklosi-Coffman debate—and a search through its archives suggests it hasn’t really done so in the rest of its coverage, either. With Election Day less than four weeks away, time is running out.

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.