In Colorado, $716 billion claim lives on

Romney repeats the discredited charge at weekend rally, and it pops up in ads for a Congressional race

COLORADO — On Saturday, at his last and largest 2012 campaign rally here, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney told the crowd that President Obama took $716 billion from Medicare to fund his Affordable Care Act.

“He raided $716 billion from Medicare to pay for his vaunted Obamacare,” Romney told 17,000 supporters at Comfort Dental Amphitheater in the southern Denver suburb of Greenwood Village (at about the 51-minute mark in this video).

The claim, now almost standard in Romney’s stump speeches, has been widely discussed—and widely discredited—for weeks, as CJR has previously reported.

But on Saturday night, with less than three days before polls close, Colorado media let Romney’s accusation go unchallenged—in fact, entirely unmentioned—in news reports of the rally, including by 9News and The Denver Post.

Maybe reporters have heard the claim so often they now tune it out? Maybe they assume everyone knows by now it is misleading? Maybe they’ve given up on factchecking in general, at this eleventh hour, deciding it doesn’t deter deceptive campaign claims—“[factchecking] seems like a losing game of Whack-a-Mole,” as Eli Stokols, political reporter for KDVR Channel 31 in Denver, told Colorado media critic Jason Salzman back in July.

But, Romney repeated the $716 billion claim Saturday, and Coloradans at the Greenwood Village rally heard it. Reporters should not have turned a deaf ear.

The work of sorting through this claim has already been done by many reporters here (as well as national outlets and factchecking outfits) and so would have required just a few extra sentences in reports on Saturday’s rally. At least two Denver television stations have previously analyzed Romney’s Obama-cuts-Medicare-by-$716-billion claim and declared it dubious. KUSA Channel 9’s Brandon Rittiman, in his “Truth Test” series, labeled it “half true” in late August. And Channel 4’s Shaun Boyd used the words “Not Exactly” to describe it in a recent “Reality Check” roundup of the most common claims we have heard in TV ads from both presidential campaigns.

But on Saturday night, Channel 9 ignored Romney’s misleading claim in its coverage of the rally, and on Channel 4’s website, there is no indication that the station even covered the rally. The Denver Post, on its website Saturday night and in its Sunday print edition, also overlooked the claim. (The paper has previously flagged the claim and then, on another occasion that I wrote about for CJR, let it pass unchallenged.)

The $716 billion claim has also popped up in the race for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District between freshman Republican Rep. Scott Tipton and his Democratic challenger Sal Pace, and made the lede anecdote in a November 1st report by Time and ProPublica. Wrote Time’s Michael Scherer:

About a week before election day, a young girl, maybe 10 years old, confronted Colorado House candidate Sal Pace in a pew at his Pueblo church. “She said, ‘Is it true that you want to cut my grandmother’s Medicare?’” Pace remembers.

Like many other Democrats around the country, Pace has spent months trying to rebut the charge that President Obama’s health care reforms hurt Grandma by cutting Medicare by $716 billion. In fact, the same cuts in payments to medical providers found in Obamacare can also be found in the House Republican budget, and they do not directly limit patient care. “I told the little girl that the ads are full of lies and that it’s not right for people to lie,” he said.

What Pace couldn’t tell the girl was who exactly is to blame. That’s because the moneymen behind the outfit spending the most on the Medicare attack ads in Pace’s district will not show their faces. The money is being spent through a Washington-based group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), that calls itself a “social welfare” nonprofit, so it does not need to reveal its donors to the public. In mid-October, the group popped up in Pace’s district, which is about the size of New York state, and promised to spend $1.3 million there in the campaign’s final three weeks. In one day, Pace spokesman James Dakin Owens said, “They basically matched us dollar for dollar for everything we had raised in the campaign. It was an 800-pound gorilla that just jumped in.”

Joe Hanel, reporter for The Durango Herald in southwestern Colorado, has done good work reporting on (and providing additional context for) Tipton’s and ATR’s use of the $716 billion claim. On October 6, Hanel wrote about a misleading Tipton ad that invoked the figure. On October 17th, he reported on ATR’s ad and how it “makes a now-familiar [$716 billion] attack against Tipton’s main challenger, Democrat Sal Pace, on the subject of Medicare.” Hanel then clearly walked readers through the dubious claim, citing PolitiFact and Kaiser Family Foundation.

It doesn’t take much to tell readers what they need to know to evaluate this well-worn claim. Hanel’s October 17th piece, for example, was under 300 words total. In the tight presidential race here in Colorado—and the hard-fought 3rd Congressional District contest—those few extra words could make a real difference. It’s unfortunate that reporters here haven’t consistently made the effort.

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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.