Politics & Policy

Soledad’s Sophistry

And the casuistry of cable-TV fact-checking.

On Monday night, CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, guest-hosting Anderson Cooper’s show, took on Romney-campaign spokeswoman Barbara Comstock about Paul Ryan and President Obama’s treatment of Medicare cuts. Newsbusters noted this exchange because O’Brien, ostensibly a moderator on an objective news network, can be seen shuffling a printed op-ed from the rabidly liberal Talking Points Memo entitled “The Myth Of Paul Ryan The Bipartisan Leader.” TPM may be a biased outlet, but the problem is not so much that she was using their information (she was actually just using it to cite a quotation) as that she was making a partisan and dishonest case under the veneer of clarifying the issues and the facts.

She begins the segment with a description of the coming Medicare cuts in Obamacare, presumably to remind her guest of the facts and prompt a defense, that is wrong on essentially every point:

People listening to both [Mitt Romney] and [Paul Ryan] today might get the impression that they actually opposed the $700 billion cut, but in fact the congressman’s plan not only includes this cut, but instead of restoring it to the funding, he puts the same yearly cap on growth in spending per beneficiary, and unlike the president’s plan, he doesn’t put the savings back into the system. It actually uses that money to finance deficit reduction and tax cuts.

O’Brien is correct on one thing: Paul Ryan’s House budgets have preserved the reduction in the growth of Medicare spending included in Obamacare (though that’s hardly a good starting point for a real discussion of the issues like the ones that, say, the vastly more fair-minded Anderson Cooper often encourages). But here are the mistakes she makes in the above statement:

1. Mitt Romney has consistently opposed the $700 billion cut, and has pledged to restore that funding to Medicare; people would be “getting the right impression” from him, and the wrong one from O’Brien.

2. She claims that Ryan’s plan does something other than “restoring [the $700 billion] to the funding,” insinuating that Obamacare allocates the savings from the cuts to funding future Medicare obligations (i.e., the Medicare trust fund); but Obamacare spends that money on exchange subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and various other health-care expenditures.

3. Ryan’s plan might use essentially “the same yearly cap on growth in spending” as Obamacare, but it’s important that Romney’s plan would not; it would remove this cap entirely for the next ten years.

4. There is no cap on “spending per beneficiary” in any plan; it’s a global cap. Such a term doesn’t make sense in the fee-for-service system that will persist over the next ten years.

5. Ryan’s plan does “put the savings back into the system,” by restoring them to the Medicare trust fund (as a matter of budgetary reality, he might borrow from that to reduce the deficit or cut taxes, but that will leave behind government bonds which shore up Medicare’s assets and extend the trust fund’s life, which Obamacare has shortened).

6. Ryan’s plan is indeed “unlike the president’s plan,” but Obamacare takes the funding out of Medicare, or “the system,” to spend on other health-care priorities.

O’Brien’s presentation of the “facts” includes an error every dozen words, roughly. Her evasive maneuvering on the issue is further evident later on, after Comstock begins to explain why current seniors and everyone over 55 need not worry about any effects of the Ryan plan. Posturing as if she’s stopping to provide a fact check, O’Brien interrupts Comstock to provide a new distortion on an unrelated issue:

Okay, now let’s stop there. . . . That money is not taken out, that money is a reduction in the growth over ten years, that money doesn’t come from the benefits.

Given that O’Brien now mounts an argument against what she accepted earlier (that the 700 billion number is a cut), it’s obvious that she is just trying to tear down the Romney campaign with whatever’s closest at hand, factual or not. Her argument that Obamacare’s reduction in the growth of Medicare spending and reallocation of the funds doesn’t amount to any “cut” in “benefits” certainly has no basis in reality. Assuming health-care costs continue to grow anywhere near as quickly as they have been, the set growth rate will certainly mean real cuts: Medicare spending will grow more slowly than the costs of the care that’s supposed to be provided, meaning Medicare will provide less health care than it does now. That’s called a cut.

Facing off against John Sununu on her own show Tuesday morning, O’Brien fired off a similar chain of indignant distortions:

I can tell you what [the CBO assessment of Obamacare’s Medicare cuts] says. It cuts a reduction in the expected rate of growth, which you know . . . not cutting benefits to the elderly. Benefits will be improved. The focus is on hospitals. The focus is on health insurance. . . . The hospitals agreed to that. The drug providers agreed to that because their theory is that what they’re going to be able to do is make up by the number of people who come into the system.

O’Brien’s claim that the Medicare cuts won’t affect beneficiaries is standard-issue Obama-administration obfuscation. Technically, the cuts by law can’t be used to reduce the set of benefits provided; instead, the cuts will come, almost definitely, in reductions in payment rates to providers. This, as Medicaid beneficiaries know, will result in lower-quality care and fewer doctors who are willing to accept them as patients. There is no way to pay insurers and providers less and pretend care will not be affected, as Medicare chief actuary Richard Foster has repeatedly explained. It’s a classic economic fallacy to assume that government can intervene on one side of a transaction without affecting the guy on the other side, and one that, when proffered by a TV host as a clarification in a debate, might mislead many viewers.

O’Brien’s last assertion, that providers have agreed to the cuts because they expect more patients, is just a blatant fabrication that one wouldn’t hear even from the Obama campaign: Hospital trade groups and drug companies did agree to endorse the Affordable Care Act, and partly because it would bring them millions of new customers. But this is hardly equivalent (or even related) to an agreement on the part of those hospitals to accept Medicare patients or a promise to provide the same services to Medicare beneficiaries when their payment rates fall well below the market rate (or even, eventually, the cost of providing the services). Under cover of inserting a vaguely accurate but irrelevant fact, O’Brien thus distorts the discussion in Obama’s favor and deceives her viewers.

This isn’t the first time Soledad O’Brien has interrupted one of her guests in order to try to correct him or her in a defense of the president, and failed miserably. Over the winter, she did basically the same thing when Breitbart’s Joel Pollak attempted to argue, correctly, that “critical race theory” is a radical and racist strand of thought, and that therefore Americans should be concerned by the president’s association with it in his law school years. Soledad employed her trademark “Let’s stop there” to claim that CRT is nothing more than “the intersection of race and politics and the law,” which is, if a definition of anything, a completely inaccurate definition of critical race theory. When I consulted Stephan Thernstrom, a professor of social history at Harvard, he characterized O’Brien’s explanation and criticism as “simply blowing smoke.”

And O’Brien and other cable-TV figures aren’t obscuring the truth just when they claim to be clearing up the facts: They’re usually pushing a narrative of their own.

In the current political-media climate, peddlers of “facts” tend to succumb to this temptation quite frequently. Last fall, Mark Hemingway wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard entitled “Lies, Damned Lies, and Fact-Checkers,” arguing that the rise of media “fact checking” operations has done little to clarify the facts of our political disputes, because they receive attention only if they offer a compelling narrative or unique take in their presentation of the facts. Plain reality rarely suffices to hold the public’s attention, so, for instance, fact checkers insist on adjudicating ambiguous disputes about campaign rhetoric.

It’s rare for some agenda not to drive the selection and presentation of “the facts,” even if it isn’t always a liberal one. This problem is exacerbated when a cable-TV host, in the heat of a debate, pretends to insert clarifying information while really intending to drive the debate one way or the other. Such an intervention might occasionally be necessary — our public debate hardly suffers from an oversupply of facts — but talking heads like O’Brien are rarely the right source, given their agendas.

O’Brien’s attempted remedy, apparently, is to make her agenda reliable and predictable: You can be sure not only that she’ll present “facts” without any attention to accuracy, but also that she’ll do it in defense of President Obama.

— Patrick Brennan is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Patrick BrennanPatrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...


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