Media Defend Obama's 'Revamped' Health Care Takeover Plan

President Obama released his own plan for health care reform Feb. 22, just days ahead of his Feb. 25 "bipartisan" summit about health care reform. NBC's Chuck Todd was thrilled the president "finally" weighed in.

Republican leadership quickly condemned the plan, which relies heavily on the current Senate bill, as the same government takeover that had already been proposed. House GOP Leader John Boehner said the plan "crippled the credibility" of the upcoming summit.

In more than thirty stories the cable and network news media reacted by defending the White House against Boehner's claim by saying the plan was merely an "opening bid," consulting liberal politicians and outside groups like Brookings Institution, The Nation and Huffington Post, and by pushing Republicans to compromise and accept a bipartisan solution.

MSNBC invited Ryan Grim of the liberal blog Huffington Post to comment on the president's plan Feb. 22. He told Tamron Hall and Savannah Guthrie that Republicans "almost have to show up" to the summit in order to avoid looking like obstructionists.

CNN's Rick Sanchez was confused by Republican criticism of the summit which he categorized as "fear of a trap." "I don't understand the argument, period," Sanchez declared.

CNN's Dan Lothian offered the analogy of Democrats being on the on the 100th floor of a building and Republicans on the ground floor. Sanchez called for a compromise: "I think somehow they all need to get to the 50th floor."

Several reports uncritically repeated White House claims about the cost of Obama's plan ($950 billion) and The Nation's Chris Hayes, a liberal MSNBC guest, wrongly claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the bill is paid for. No one on "Morning Joe" with Hayes called him out for his inaccurate assertion.

The fact is that the CBO "cannot provide a cost estimate for the proposal without additional detail." A mere two cable reports admitted that the CBO is unable to score this particular plan yet. No network reports mentioned this important detail.

Since Feb. 22 conservatives have criticized Obama's plan for violating his tax pledge, for doing nothing to control rising costs of health care and for ignoring the consequences of price controls. But the network and cable news programs have done a terrible job of representing those concerns.

Journalists often ignored public opposition to overreaching health care reforms and defended the administration in the rare cases it was mentioned. NBC's Chuck Todd and David Shuster downplayed opposition to the plan Feb. 22 blaming it on a "communications" problem. MSNBC and CNN segments also argued that the American public favors a public option and interviewed guests who supported passing a bill with public option using reconciliation procedure.

Misreporting and Underreporting the Facts

The cable and network cheerleading wasn't the only flaw in health care reform stories Feb. 22 and 23. In some cases, the news media actually managed to misreport the facts.

Reporters relied on the use of White House cost estimates that had not been confirmed by the CBO due to the lack of detail in Obama's plan. In one case, an MSNBC guest said the CBO had done the math and his inaccuracy went unchallenged.

But NBC's "Today," MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," CNN "Newsroom" and other programs also misreported the removal of the special Medicaid deal with Nebraska.

In December the media reported that Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., had worked out a "sweet deal" in exchange for his support of the Senate health care reform bill. According to Politico, the deal was to have the federal government pay most of the bill for Nebraska's new Medicaid recipients forever.

NBC's "Today" reported that Obama's plan "scraps" the Nebraska deal. ABC's "Good Morning America" used the word removal and other broadcasts also incorrectly said the deal was "gone."

But according to The Heritage Foundation, the president's plan doesn't eliminate the "cornhusker kickback" that infuriated people on both sides of the aisle -- instead it extended it to all 50 states.

"Now all new Medicaid spending through 2017 and 90 percent after 2020 will be picked up by the feds," Heritage's Conn Carroll wrote.

Borrowing from the White House playbook, ABC's George Stephanopoulos portrayed Republicans as a "do-nothing" party in an interview with Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., on Feb. 23.

Stephanopoulos parroted the White House question (which Robert Gibbs and other administration officials pushed on Feb. 22 and 23): "Will the Republicans post their health care plan and when?" and followed up "so will you take them up on that?"

Cantor told Stephanopoulos that the House GOP "had a plan posted since the vote in July." The ABC host argued back saying Republicans don't have a "comprehensive bill." Cantor said they did.

Heritage Foundation called that White House "gamesmanship," but supported Cantor's position saying "Not only do House Republicans already have their own health care plan, not only is it already available online, but the White House's own website already links to it!"

Ignoring Conservative Worries

While many network and cable reports about Obama's health care plan noted Republican opposition to the plan, journalists rarely delved into specific economic concerns from conservatives.

MSNBC's Hall seemed to agree with Obama's plan to block insurance premium hikes saying, "Many are saying that's the insurance reform that was needed, perhaps in the very beginning, to make sure that people were not spending so much money, so much of their income just trying to keep up with their insurance premiums."

Neither Hall nor Guthrie explored the potential impact of such price controls on insurance premiums.

Just one day after Obama introduced a plan that would include a board of overseers who could block "extreme" rate hikes, ABC's Diane Sawyer saw a need for limiting insurance premiums on Feb. 23. She introduced an attack on private insurers by asking "will Republicans or will Democrats keep insurance companies from jacking up premiums while making huge profits?"

Cato Institute's director of health policy studies Michael F. Cannon, wrote about the price controls that "helped kill the Clinton health plan" in the 1990s and criticized Obama's intent to do the same thing.

"Artificially limiting premium growth allows the government to curtail spending while leaving the dirty work of withholding medical care to private insurers," Cannon explained.

Cannon also quoted a 1994 paper by Progressive Policy Institute's David Kendall that examined the effects of health care price controls. Kendall wrote that "government price regulation will always fail because it does not change the underlying economic forces driving up prices. If we are serious about slowing the growth of health care costs, we have to change the ways we consume and provide medical care."

CNN's Ali Velshi was one of the few reporters who admitted that Obama's plan "doesn't bring down the cost" of health care."

Another conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform, found that the bill would raise taxes by $748 billion over the next 10 years. ATR's Ryan Ellis, director of policy, also pointed out in detail the ways in which Obama's plan violates his pledge not to tax any families making less than $250,000 a year.

Ellis concluded that the plan raises taxes on such families by $136 billion.

Neither conservative group was represented in network or cable broadcasts following Obama's announcement, but representatives from liberal think tank Brookings, progressive publication The Nation and liberal blog Huffington Post along with socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt., were all interviewed about the plan.

Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is the Assistant Managing Editor for the MRC's Business and Media Institute.