David Gregory, Health Law Fact Injector

gregory-healthNBC‘s Chuck Todd got a lot of heat for suggesting on MSNBC‘s Morning Joe that it wasn’t right to blame the media for public misperceptions of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The real trouble was lousy “messaging” by the White House.

That struck people as a journalist basically saying that it wasn’t the job of the press to intervene to correct distortions. Of course, Todd said that wasn’t what he meant, but it was interesting to see NBC‘s Meet the Press host David Gregory try to take a different approach. Unfortunately, his attempted factcheck didn’t really clarify much.

During a discussion on the September 22 show, one guest, Democrat Rep. Barbara Lee, said this:

We have children who now receive healthcare who could not receive healthcare prior to this because of preexisting conditions; we have millions of young people who are still on their parents’ health insurance plans who would not be on those plans. We have over 100 million people now who will not be jammed out of their insurance because of the fact that they exhaust their benefits.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, had a very different impression of the law:

Seven million more individuals will lose employer-provided insurance, and that’s according to the CBO, because of Obamacare. Look at the thousands–we’ve got over 300 companies that have altered, changed or reduced health benefits because of Obamacare. And that is hundreds of thousands of uninsured lives. We have 21.3 million Americans who are either un- or underemployed.

The disagreement continued. Lee said insurance premiums were going down. Blackburn said no, in fact they’re going up–“through the roof,” as she put it.

At this point, Gregory intervened, ready to give viewers some facts.

Let me inject a point of fact here. There is a lot of confusion, and we’ve done some checking on this as well. Even the issue of premiums, they have gone up in some states; they’re coming down in other states, if they have exchanges. I mean, you know full well it depends on who the governor is.

If you’re governor of Florida, you’re inimical to the Affordable Care Act, you’re going to make it more difficult, the Feds have to come in and do it. In New York, Democratic governor, they’re having an easier time of it. So it really does matter where you are, but there is confusion, Senator Lee, to your point, and to your opposition.

This is not exactly helpful. Blackburn was making some specific claims–like alluding to a CBO report about 7 million workers losing coverage. That sounds bad–but, as some outlets have pointed out, the idea is that many such workers will get coverage through the exchanges.

Now,  it’s not easy to referee a debate over the cost of insurance premiums. They’ve increased substantially over the past several years; Obamacare defenders are often arguing that the increases are due to the law, but that could be a stretch.

As noted (9/16/13), a fairly well-known study by the  Rand Corporation found no evidence that rates would increase on the individual market. The report found some states where individual market premiums would increase–but, as reported, “average out-of-pocket costs would be unchanged or decline for all states once tax credits are factored in.”  The study was written up under the headline “Study: Obamacare Rate Concerns ‘Overblown.'” So between the two claims–rates are coming down or skyrocketing–there  seems to be more evidence for the former than the latter.

Gregory’s fact intervention continued:

Here are some of the headlines this week, a couple pro, a couple con here. Reuters: “Cleveland Clinic Announces Job Cuts to Prepare for Obamacare.” Bloomberg: “GE, IBM Ending Retiree Health Plans in an Historic Shift.” USA Today: “Healthcare for 100 Bucks a Month? Yes, Really, That Is Possible.” The South Florida Sun-Sentinel: “Obamacare Cuts Costs.”

So there is vulnerability because it is unpopular, but there is not a fact pattern that you can say is a singular fact pattern in terms of the impact of Obamacare yet.

Well, a string of random headlines is not helpful at all. The first story, for instance, is about unspecified job cuts at a major provider of healthcare services. The point seemed to be to find an equal number of “good news” and “bad news” stories.

Gregory’s right that there’s no “singular fact pattern” when it comes to the healthcare law. There are some obvious facts, like the ones Barbara Lee cited about pre-existing conditions and children being covered on their parents’ plans.

But it’s hard not to see Gregory’s comments as part of a larger media trend, where factchecking is reduced to the act of saying that everyone’s got a point. That’s “balance,” but it’s not very helpful.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.