Covering politicians as a journalist has one thing in common with playing golf. The central premise of both is that you must play it as it lies.
In golf, everyone watching can recognize a bad lie for what it is. When our eyes or the camera sees the ball buried in tall grass or behind a tree, we know instantly the golfer is the victim of a mighty bad lie.
But in politics, ordinary spectators don’t know when they’ve witnessed a bad lie. So democracy needs journalists to jump in, ferret out the facts and reveal a politician’s lie for what it is.
My journalist colleagues often do just that. But in the long, partisan, hate-based fight that gave us the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, we journalists failed to do what our democracy needed most: spotlight the big political lies of all sides in a timely way.
And when we journalists finally tumbled to the truth, we often failed to play it with the same Page One, prime-time prominence we aired the politicians’ original lies and distortions. Too often, we buried newfound evidence of lies and distortions on inside print or Web pages or as oh-by-the-way tidbits at the end of newscasts — too late and too obscured to serve the interests of our democracy.
Here’s an example I looked into recently, after staring into the bathroom mirror during a morning shave. It concerns my own reporting on what became Obamacare.
President Barack Obama, in office less than five months, addressed the American Medical Association on June 15, 2009. He told members that “no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”
Back then, I called a trusted source on health care complexities, a well-known Washington lobbyist who wasn’t part of the conservative chorus of Obama haters, who had long advocated bipartisan solutions for comprehensive health care reform.
“It’s a lie,” my source said. “It’s simply not true and he, or at least his team, has to know it can’t be true.” Under Obama’s reform, he predicted, the government would require insurance coverage of items not in many present plans. Insurance companies would discontinue old plans, even grandfathered ones, to offer plans that comply with the law.
I’m sure many reporters did what I did: checked with White House officials, who disagreed with dire predictions, and with insurance industry officials, who gave vague answers. Regrettably, I never wrote an article challenging their responses, though I focused on other aspects of health care.
And then the worst thing for truth happened: Conservatives began loudly attacking Obama for lying, and political polarization intensified. Lacking proof, reporters turned to the misguided journalistic practice of quoting the loudest mouths on both sides.
Days after signing the Affordable Care Act on March 23, 2010, the president told an audience in Portland, Maine: “If you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in the future.”
Obama repeated that promise dozens of times over the years.
As we’ve seen, what my lobbyist source predicted in 2009 has now come to pass. Insurance companies have canceled policies that didn’t contain what the government required. Some new plans will cost more. Some will cost less, especially for those with low-income subsidies.
Meanwhile, the White House experts who dug themselves into this hole have kept digging, as if that’s the way to get out of it.
Officials put out the word that a “mere” 5 percent of Americans would lose plans they liked. But that still means roughly 12 million people, the administration says.
On Oct. 28, Obama’s most trusted insider, presidential assistant Valerie Jarrett, tweeted: “FACT: Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.” That’s a shamefully deceptive statement, because insurance companies are predictably changing policies to meet the law’s coverage provisions.
At a rally Monday in Washington, Obama amended his 2009 promise: “What we said was you could keep (your plan) if it hasn’t changed since the law was passed.” But that wasn’t what he’d said previously.
So why did Obama make a promise he wasn’t sure he could keep? Probably because his people knew Republicans would use his caveat to spread the fear that people wouldn’t be able to keep the plan they liked. That was, after all, how they’d defeated Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health reform.
Instead, Obama secured his Obamacare legacy — but tarnished, perhaps forever, his reputation for telling people the truth.