With Congress in recess, much of the fight over health care reform has migrated to the airwaves as millions of dollars of advertisements are rolled out, primarily by critics. But how accurate are these ads? Brooks Jackson, director of factcheck.org, says not very. He explains what misinformation looks like.
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away. I'm Bob Garfield. With Congress still in recess, debate over health care reform has made its way to our television sets via the first spate of ads. Many of those ads are from anti-health reform groups that rely on a device popular with the town hall protesters we've seen so much of on cable news these past few weeks, namely, scared the bejesus out of the elderly. Some ads warned seniors, for example, that an overhaul of the health care system would result in them losing access to services and even to their own physicians.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER: The government, not doctors, will decide if older patients are worth the cost.
BOB GARFIELD: Others go as far as to suggest that proposals currently before Congress will cut health care for seniors, while using taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions.
MAN: They won't pay for my surgery, but we're forced to pay for abortions!
BOB GARFIELD: They're frightening claims, for sure, but are they factually correct? Brooks Jackson is the director of Factcheck.org. He says that many of these ads are, indeed, riddled with misinformation, and he joins us once again. Hey, Brooks, welcome back to the show.
BROOKS JACKSON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: So what’s the most egregious misstatement of fact, misinformation, propaganda or lie [LAUGHS] that you've run across?
BROOKS JACKSON: [LAUGHS] Well, I don't have a mendacity meter that would give me a scientifically accurate answer to that, but we've sure seen a lot of howlers out there, and you mentioned a couple. The claim, for example, that the House leadership bill would contain something called “death panels” that somehow require mandatory counseling, pushing people toward doctor-assisted suicide -- just utter bunk, of course.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so what other scare tactics are being employed?
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, there’s an ad out from the 60 Plus Association saying that there would be long lines, you might lose your physician, that the elderly are going to see benefit cuts in Medicare as a result of what’s being proposed. Now, this is really ironic because when John McCain proposed saving some money in Medicare to pay for his health care proposal, the Obama folks attacked him in a couple of ads that we called false, saying that this would necessarily result in big cuts in Medicare benefits.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s another side to this argument, generally speaking, the side that is in support of, if not this particular House bill, the Obama initiative in general. How honest, straightforward, factually correct have the pro-health care reform ads been?
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, the advertising has been largely fact-free, actually. The proponents say we must end things like insurance policies that don't cover pre-existing conditions, and it’s phrased in terms of we should fix the system, we must do this, we must accomplish that. So they haven't really given us much to check of a factual nature, and we consequently haven't found a lot to object to in the ads run by the proponents.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s obviously an echo chamber out there. There’s right wing talking heads, there’s the town hall meeting disruptions, which are heavily covered on 24-hour cable news. But these ads do influence people. Back in the Clinton era, a series of ads featuring a couple called Harry and Louise were largely credited with torpedoing the Clinton plan. Here’s what they sounded like back then:
LOUISE: Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all.
HARRY: They choose.
LOUISE: And we lose.
BOB GARFIELD: But now Harry and Louise are back, only this time [LAUGHS] they're not representing the opponents of health care reform, they're representing the proponents. And this is what they sound like 16 years later.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
LOUISE: A little more cooperation, a little less politics and we can get the job done this time. [END CLIP]
BROOKS JACKSON: Well, they've certainly changed sides, and I think this is indicative of something that’s really gone largely unnoticed here. The special interest planets have shifted in their orbits since 1993, when the health insurance industry was against what the Clintons were proposing, when the pharmaceutical industry was against it. The American Medical Association wasn't very keen on it either. Now, the American Medical Association, the very group that coined the term “socialized medicine” back when Harry Truman was proposing a national health care system, has actually endorsed the House legislation. And they're certainly favoring and have been advertising in favor of an overhaul of the health care system of some sort. The pharmaceutical industry is financing ads favoring an overhaul of the system. Even the insurance industry itself, the lobby representing the big guys, the Aetnas, the Blue Cross/Blue Shield guys, they have formally endorsed market reforms, things like ending non-coverage of preexisting conditions and requiring insurance plans to take all comers. They also want – and this is interesting – they favor a personal mandate requiring individuals to be covered, to obtain coverage somehow. The big groups, the moneyed lobbies, are really in different positions now, and the advertising that we've seen attacking the overhaul of the health care system generally are coming from ideological groups and groups that basically are responsible only to their fundraisers. And there’s a financial incentive, I think, for them to be as inflammatory as possible, because it keeps the donations coming.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Brooks, as always, thank you so much for joining us.
BROOKS JACKSON: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Brooks Jackson is the director of Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.