A willing “suspension of disbelief” is essential to enjoy a good play or other fiction but it’s a disaster when the media adopts it in place of skepticism–especially toward those in government.
And yet, that is exactly what happened with the Affordable Care Act. It’s hard to not to conclude that the media willingly suspended disbelief when it came to the many claims made by President Obama, legislators and supporters of the Affordable Care Act. The now obvious 2013 “Lie of the Year”, for example, was anything but obvious to most Americans before millions lost the insurance coverage they liked. Why?
Taken together with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber’s recently revealed admissions that deception was part of the plan all along, it’s fair to ask, “What happened to our watchdog press?” There has been much gnashing of teeth over Professor Gruber’s candor but virtually no self-examination by the media of its role in helping to perpetrate a fraudulent sales job on the American people.
Indeed, in retrospect it appears as if the Administration counted on a compliant media not asking the hard questions. This disinterest in the truth, as much as the lies themselves, has contributed to the mistrust and anger that divides the nation. So far the media has refused to take any responsibility.
When the CIA failed to predict the fall of Iran there was acid and deserved criticism of its failure to fulfill its fundamental mission. That same kind of criticism should be a part of the public conversation now about the role of the media in missing deliberate efforts by this Administration to employ outright falsehoods to pervert “consent of the governed”. Only with deception, said Dr. Gruber, could the law win enactment. He embraced government deception “for the greater good” but the media should not have. It was a failure of the media’s most fundamental duty in a free society.
Critics were ignored, publicly dismissed or even ridiculed on editorial pages and within news reports. Many predicted, well in advance of enactment, that “keeping our doctors” or rate savings were fictions. It seems obvious now that the media chose taking sides over even-handed skepticism and a previously normal and healthy adversarial relationship with government officials. A hundred day “honeymoon” is fair for new administrations. A five-year honeymoon is closer to what we actually got.
Reporters are human, too, and it is perhaps understandable that they were swept up in the passion for a new beginning and Obama’s “audacity of hope”. But editors are supposed to be above, or at least inured to such enthusiasms in order to keep everybody honest. In this case, they failed. Unless they accept this failure there will be little effort to be better editors and reporters going forward.
Informed consent is the bedrock beneath our kind of government. It is not surprising that officials will try to mislead. It’s happened before and it will happen again. But propaganda cannot be allowed to go unchallenged by a free press without turning the whole American idea of informed self-determination on its head. Making excuses for President Obama’s “Lie of the Year”, as the New York Times and others did, begins to smack of Pravda–the Russian State propaganda newspaper.
Off-the-record handling sessions, the shutdown of sources, hacking reporter’s computers, the prosecution of reporters and even the illegal collection of the Associated Press’ office and cell phone records should have been the alarm that woke our media up to the fact that this White House will do or say anything to advance its goals—up to and including outright lies and violations of the First Amendment.
The press must learn from its failure to be skeptical of a popular president or media outlets risk losing all credibility and we risk losing the ability to actually direct our government, short of wholesale changes at election-time. If journalists still believe that ethics have a place in objective reporting then wisdom begins with acceptance of mistakes. Will editors and reporters have the honesty and humility now to reflect and admit that because they liked Barack Obama they failed to do their jobs? No sign of it yet.
Ken Hoagland is chairman of Restore America’s Voice—a grassroots advocacy group that has delivered two million petitions to Congress urging repeal of the Affordable Care Act.