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Jul. 30 2009 - 2:55 am | 6 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The uselessness of op-ed pages (a continuing series)

[Updated Below]

A few weeks back, I blogged at my original HQ about the decreasing utility of opinion pages in major American newspapers. The impetus for that post was a shockingly bad deeply flawed op-ed in The Washington Post by a certain former governor of Alaska. Excuse me while I get self-referential:

But to zoom out for a second, there should be a general expectation that a college graduate, and certainly a governor of a state, should be able to articulate a cogent, factual opinion on some subject or another. Indeed, that’s really all a good op-ed should be: a written argument that seeks to inform, advance a point of view or influence discussion by deploying facts in support of that particular point of view while also using facts to rebut contrary claims. So it becomes quite maddening to read editorials about cap and trade that don’t mention obviously related issues like pollution or to see editorials about global warming that misinterpret or manipulate data in the service of advancing an ideological point of view.

So, I was surprised, but not shocked, to see that the WaPo was at it again today, publishing a factually challenged piece by Harvard (!) economist Martin Feldstein on health care. Feldstein claims that:

Obama has said that he would favor a British-style “single payer” system in which the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are salaried but that he recognizes that such a shift would be too disruptive to the health-care industry.

There are two demonstrably false claims in the above. Either Feldstein doesn’t know or doesn’t care that there’s a critical distinction between the British National Health Service (NHS) and a “single payer” system, and he also apparently doesn’t know what policies Barack Obama supports. Jon Chait, Paul Krugman and Nate Silver do the body work. Here’s Silver:

Feldstein is simply mistaken here. “Single-payer” has to do with who pays for health care (in the case of single-payer, the federal government does). It has absolutely nothing to do with who provides health care. It’s the difference between the Canadian system, in which private doctors and hospitals are paid by the Canadian government (and indirectly, Canadian taxpayers) to provide health care to its citizenry, and the British system, in which the providers themselves — doctors, nurses, hospital administrators — are actually in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government. For that matter, it’s the difference between Medicare — a single-payer system for American seniors — and the British system. The Canadian system is nationalized health insurance. The British system is nationalized health care — or if you prefer, socialized medicine.

Obama has never expressed or implied any admiration for the British system of socialized medicine. Not that there aren’t admirable elements of it — but I doubt that you’d find even very many self-identified liberals who would suggest that it’s the right system for America. Obama, rather, has expressed admiration for a government-run monopoly on insurance — single-payer — as do about half of Americans in opinion polls.

Now maybe I’m just overly attentive to this type of thing because I’m working as a fact checker at a magazine this summer, but come on. It’s not as if the information about the particulars of a single payer system can only be found in some arcane volume located deep in the bowels of an obscure university library. Go Google “single payer”. Now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back? It took 0.14 seconds for my first hit, a link to a Wikipedia entry, to come back. Located conspicuously near the top of said entry is a definition of single payer from the National Library of Medicine that reads:

An approach to health care financing with only one source of money for paying health care providers. The scope may be national, like the Canadian system, state-wide, or community-based. The payer may be a governmental unit or other entity such as an insurance company. The proposed advantages include administrative simplicity for patients and providers, and resulting significant savings in overhead costs.

It goes on to say:

Single-payer health care does not necessarily mean that the government or some government agency delivers or controls health care services. It may pay for health professionals and services that are delivered in either private or public sector settings according to the needs and wishes of the patient and his or her doctor.

In particular, the term “single payer” is not to be confused with “socialized medicine.” The term “socialized medicine” refers to a system, like the U.S. Veterans Administration, or the UK health system, “in which doctors and hospitals work for and draw salaries from the government”, that is, “in which all health personnel and health facilities, including doctors and hospitals, work for the government and draw salaries from the government” while “single payer” refers only to health insurance (or, payments for health services) being funded through a single public (i.e. governmental) institution. (Emphasis mine)

So there you have it. Less than a minute’s worth of research on that new fangled thing called the Internet would have cleared things up. I’m not sure if Feldstein thought he knew the difference between the systems or if he was just lazy, but even assuming that he didn’t do his homework, what the hell is going on at the Washington Post that nobody caught this?

I assume that most national newspapers employ fact checkers for their opinion sections and I know for a fact that the WaPo does, but they haven’t been doing such a bang up job recently.

Look, I know that newspapers are laying off staff and that it might not be feasible for a lot of outlets to employ full-time fact checkers, but there has to be some kind of quality control mechanism in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Newspapers trade on their reputations as honest brokers of information, and they become trusted institutions by adhering to standards (or the so-called “eternal verities of journalism”) like, for example, the notion of accuracy.

The problem with wildly inaccurate columns like Feldstein’s is that, quite often, they’re allowed to stand without correction, and in so doing, the ideas conveyed within acquire the veneer of truth (or perhaps, truthiness). They’re fired around the internet, read by still more people, and well…you can see where this ends. The landscape is littered with worthless crap. Participating in our political discourse very quickly becomes a constant struggle of separating the wheat from the chaff.

And let it be said that this isn’t a problem exclusive to the medium of newspapers or to one end of the political spectrum or the other. Just today on Huffington Post, New York City Comptroller William Thompson came out swinging against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein. Never mentioned in the piece, though, is the fact that Billy Thompson is running for mayor against Bloomberg. That’s something that the audience might need to know when they’re judging the arguments presented in the piece. And don’t even get me started on MoDo’s little lapse earlier this year…

I know it’s embarrassing for newspapers to have to run corrections (speaking of, check out this doozy), but at least doing so shows some respect for the profession and for the public. By letting lies stand as truth, journalists are allowing themselves to be used as foot soldiers in a propaganda war.

[Note: As of 11:45 p.m. today, the Post has still not run a correction of the Feldstein op-ed.]


For a look at how the fact checking process should work, check out this video from the St. Petersburg Times Politifact unit (H/T Jack Styczynski).


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    About Me

    I'm a native Virginian who adopted California (San Francisco, specifically) before moving to NYC last fall to become a master's candidate at the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism.

    I write, without much authority, about politics, media issues, culture, sports and anything else that comes to mind...

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