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.
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.