MEDIA
05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kathleen Sebelius Went Soft On Insurers, Not That Anyone Noticed

Kathleen Sebelius's meeting with health insurance executives was pre-sold as something of an epic clash, with the HHS Secretary striding into the lion's den to battle the largest interest group arrayed against health care reform and to offer them some stark choices.

Funny thing, though! The battle didn't exactly play out as expected. Sebelius deviated dramatically from the prepared remarks blasted around to reporters -- and at one key moment, rather than firing shots, Sebelius buckled.

As Clint Hendler at CJR's "The Kicker" puts it, that's "the perils of relying on prepared remarks". And in the excerpts of the prepared remarks, one of the hardest shots Sebelius planned to take was to criticize the insurance industry's plans to drown the debate in bill-killing advertisements:

Then there is your other choice.

You can choose to take the millions of dollars you have stored away for your next round of ads to kill meaningful reform, and use them to start giving Americans some relief from their skyrocketing premiums. Instead of spending your energy attacking the parts of the President's proposal you don't like, you can use it to strengthen the parts you do.

But when Sebelius delivered the remarks, the rhetoric was toned down, the direct mention of the ad campaign was omitted and the laying out of stark choices turned into a plea for help:

So, there's another choice.

I am hopeful that you will take the assets that you have and the influence and the bully pulpit that you have and use it to start calling for comprehensive reform to pass, start looking at giving Americans some relief with market strategies from those that are facing skyrocketing premiums. Instead of spending you energy attacking the parts of the proposal that you don't like, come to the table with strengthening the parts that are there, that we've talked about from the beginning that are essential to reform.

Please consider using your "bully pulpit" for good, maybe? And hey, I know I was going to tell you to "start giving Americans some relief," but it would be OK if you just "started LOOKING AT giving Americans some relief." Use some "market strategies," maybe? If you have the time, I mean.

The shift didn't entirely go unnoticed. Our own Sam Stein was there, and reported:

The Secretary's approach was a bit tamer. While she did occasionally take a tough tone with the AHIP crowd, the remarks were more conversational than lecturing. Indeed, some of the toughest snippets of the prepared remarks that the White House sent out to reporters were toned down in the actual address. Instead of calling out the lobby for launching a late-stage million-dollar ad campaign to defend their opposition to reform, Sebelius spoke more broadly about how the president's plan and AHIPs demands actually weren't that far apart.

It didn't escape the attention of ABC News's Political Punch:

Reporters were waiting for her to deliver the toughest portion of the remarks contained in the excerpts of that the White House provided journalists before the speech. But it didn't happen.

Instead, she dialed back the rhetoric a bit in the hopes of getting insurers back to the health care negotiating table.

USA Today's "The Oval" blog subsequently picked up ABC's account, and noted that Sebelius "pull[ed] punches."

But elsewhere, you see all sorts of media outlets that either don't know Sebelius went soft, or don't care enough to make the distinction. CBS News plays up administration "attacks" but substitutes the prepared remarks for the actual ones. Reuters says Sebelius "pile[d] pressure" on insurers, but doesn't have the right quote either. The FT suggests Sebelius "threw down the gauntlet," when she didn't. Here's CNN, pretending the prepared remarks were actually spoken aloud on planet Earth.

This Bloomberg account reads as if they covered everything except the actual speech:

The argument didn't pass muster with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who spoke to the group's policy meeting in Washington today.

"You can choose to take the millions of dollars you have stored away for your next round of ads to kill meaningful reform, and use them to start giving Americans some relief from their skyrocketing premiums," she said, according to excerpts released by the White House.

She told reporters afterward she thought her speech went well, saying she had "no visible bruises."

And when you read TPM's after-action report, the way Evan McMorris-Santoro -- who was in attendance -- reports on Sebelius makes it seem as if he sort of checked out for a while:

The lines appeared to be drawn.

Sebelius appeared before AHIP to ask the insurance companies for their help anyway.

"You have a choice," she said. "You can choose to continue your opposition to reform."

Or, she said, there's the other option. "You can choose to take the millions of dollars you have stored away for your next round of ads to kill meaningful reform, and use them to start giving Americans some relief from their skyrocketing premiums," Sebelius said. "Instead of spending your energy attacking the parts of the President's proposal you don't like, you can use it to strengthen the parts you do."

Sorry, but no: Sebelius didn't say any of that!

All of this misreporting subsequently created an opportunity for Democratic party officials to continue to pretend that Sebelius took a hard line with insurers when she did not. At 12:59 p.m. yesterday, the Democratic National Committee's Brandi Hoffine sent out an email to reporters that contained this pre-speech TPM write-up of the excerpted prepared remarks, as if it were delivered verbatim. At 1:55 p.m., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's office did the same thing:

Today, in remarks before the health insurance lobby conference in Washington, D.C., Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius reminded health industry executives that they are not bystanders in the debate over health reform - they have a choice. They can choose to continue to oppose reform, raising premiums and denying coverage; or they can stand up for the health and wellbeing of American workers, their families and small businesses - and that's good business, too.

The email then goes on to suggest that Sebelius delivered the original line about the ads, instead of the muted plea for accommodation.

So there you have it: a nation of Beltway reporters got to play a part in a folie a deux with Kathleen Sebelius, and Sebelius gets credit for toughness that she didn't actually demonstrate. I was going to say that I was surprised this whole matter wasn't getting more attention, but I guess there's really no rich tradition of the media reporting on how badly they've been played.

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