As a basic rule, politicians will say anything they can get away with. If an effective politician thinks that he can call his opponent a drug-dealing, serial-murdering gangster, and have the charge taken seriously by the media, then he will do it, even if there is no reality whatsoever to the allegation. The reason that most politicians don't describe their opponents this way is because the media will denounce them as liars, who are unfit for responsible public office.
This basic truth must be kept in mind in understanding the health care debate. The debate has trailed off into loon tune land, and it's the media's fault.
The lunacy was most clearly in evidence in former Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that President Obama's plan would force her to stand in front of a "death panel" to argue for the life of her baby with Down Syndrome. This "death panel" is a complete invention by Governor Palin. There is no twist or turn or contorted permutation of President Obama's plan that would prevent Ms. Palin from providing as much health care as she wants to her baby.
It would have made as much sense to claim that the transportation bill will deny medical care to her baby. After all, if the roads in front of her home are not properly maintained, and her baby has a medical emergency, then the transportation bill would have effectively sentenced her baby to death because she won't be able to get medical attention in a timely manner.
The reason that Governor Palin thought she could make up stories about President Obama's death panels is that the media have treated all sorts of other absurd inventions about his health care plan with respect. At the most basic level, opponents have repeatedly said that President Obama's plan will lead to rationing of health care.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing in President Obama's plan that resembles rationing. He certainly intends to limit the type of medical procedures that the government would fund, but opponents of the plan don't want the government to fund any procedures. So, how is restricting the procedures funded through a government plan rationing? Anyone who wants to is entirely free to buy as much health care as they want outside of the government-subsidized plan. Where is the rationing?
Using Governor Palin's story, there may be mothers who are less wealthy than her who will be able to care for a baby with Down Syndrome or other serious affliction as a result of President Obama's plan. These mothers might not otherwise have this option because they could not afford the health care. It is easy to see how President Obama's plan can lead to life compared with the current situation. It's virtually impossible to see how it leads to death.
The media have allowed the politicians to turn life into death and night into day when it comes to the health care debate because they decided that anything said against President Obama's plan should be treated with respect, no matter how absurd it might be.
The line about rationing isn't the only place where the media have fallen down on the job in the health care debate. Instead of telling us that the cost of the plan was "huge," as the have often done, the media could have put the cost in a context that would make it understandable to people who are not policy wonks. They could have told us that the projected $1 trillion cost over the next decade is equal to about 0.5 percent of GDP, less than half of the cost of Iraq-Afghanistan wars at their peak.
The $250 billion ten-year shortfall that Congress is struggling to fill is a bit more than 0.1 percent of GDP, rounding error in the total budget. But the media only assured the public that this gap was a big hole in the budget; they didn't try to tell us how big.
The media have the job of informing the public. They have the time and the resources to know that when opponents of President Obama's plan talk about rationing, they are not telling the truth (i.e. they are lying). If the media just pass these assertions on to the public without comment, then they are giving them credibility.
And if the opponents of health reform think they can get away with one really big lie, then why shouldn't they start moving forward with even bigger ones. It was only a matter of time before someone came up with Governor Palin's death panel line. For this we owe our thanks to The Washington Post and the rest of the mainstream media.
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