03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How the Media and the GOP Turn Lies Into Zombie Lies: A Health Care Case Study

In my column two weeks ago, I made this very simple point about the reporting surrounding the cost of the health care bill:

Political headlines of late have all been some version of Dow Jones newswire's recent screamer: "CBO Puts Health Bill Cost At $1 Trillion." That's as true as an Enron press release touting only one side of the company's ledger. Though the bill's expenditures do total $1 trillion, the CBO confirms its other provisions recover more than that, meaning headlines should read "CBO Says Health Bill Saves $110 Billion."

This is not speculation or my own interpretation -- this is a concrete fact, which you can see right on the CBO's website. And yet, other than this single Financial Times headline and article which tells the real story, the media hasn't stopped pushing the "health care will increase the deficit" lie. Indeed, the media has helped turn this Republican lie into a full-on zombie lie - ie. a lie that will not die.

As both Media Matters and the Washington Post's Ezra Klein show, the lie is now framing the discussion over the Senate version of the health care bill. That's to be expected -- it's Washington, D.C. after all, the beating heart of the American Idiocracy. But where that standard D.C. lie becomes a zombie lie is at the local level. When a lie starts getting repeated as fact in local news outlets where most average non-Beltway Americans get their news, it quickly becomes a zombie lie.

Colorado (where I live) provides a perfect example. Check out this blaring front page of the Denver Post from last Thursday:

Now watch this clip from the top of KDVR's local news broadcast right after the Senate's big health care vote on Saturday night -- specifically, watch the very end:

So, if you are the typical non-political junkie who glanced at the front page of the Denver Post, giant red font and a whopping 9 zeroes (for extra effect, of course) misled you to believe that the CBO says the Senate health care bill costs $849 billion -- not that the CBO actually says the Senate health care bill will reduce the deficit by $127 billion over 10 years and up to $650 billion over 20 years.

Likewise, if you are the typical non-political junkie who caught the evening news on Saturday, you were given at least a little more accurate information -- but only in a he-said-he-said way that calls into question the whole numbers. Specifically, you heard only that one guy - David Sirota -- claims the bill will reduce the deficit, and that another guy -- Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams -- insists the bill costs $2.5 trillion. You didn't hear that, in fact, it wasn't David Sirota who said the bill will reduce the deficit -- it was the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that the Republican Party itself cites as an unquestionably credible source. And you didn't hear that Dick Wadhams literally made up his $2.5 trillion number out of thin air.

While the Republican spin is obviously deliberately dishonest, the media's misleading frame is more likely a product of pressure for oversenationalism and a lack of reporting resources. With newspapers desperately trying to attract readership, it's a better, more outrage-generating headline to put a giant number in bold red type on a cover, rather than to have a headline saying that a bill will actually save taxpayers' money (and I have to give the Denver Post's opinion editors -- who are distinct from their front-page news editors -- at least some credit for printing my original column about this kind of budgetary misinformation in its opinion section). Similarly, a general local correspondent on deadline who covers everything from local fires to state budget issues to national health care debates might not have the time nor the researchers to verify numbers -- and so it's just easier to cite them in the he-said-he-said way (and hey, at least a shred of the real story was reported in some way, even if it was delivered in a he-said-he-said form).

Regardless of the motives or explanations, however, this is how a standard Washington lie becomes a zombie lie -- a lie that simply will not die. It is repeated over and over and over again -- sometimes deliberately, sometimes negligently -- until it becomes conventional wisdom that the most trusted nonpartisan experts in the CBO say the health care bill will balloon the federal deficit...even when those nonpartisan experts are saying exactly the opposite.