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Washington Post Ombudsman: Reporter Properly Tried to Downplay Story on Obamacare's Fiscal Double-Counting

April 17, 2012

By Avik Roy

Last week, I discussed in detail an important new report by Chuck Blahous, a trustee of the Medicare program, that estimated that Obamacare may increase the deficit over the next ten years by between $346 and $527 billion. After a number of progressive writers critiqued Chuck’s report, Chuck penned a detailed rebuttal for this blog, which went through the critiques point-by-point. Now, the ombudsman of the Washington Post has chimed in, complaining that my coverage of the report, and that of others, was a "partisan spin cycle of exaggeration, distortion, and hyperbole."

"So why does a modest and short Post story about the health reform law become a blockbuster online?" asks Patrick B. Pexton, ombudsman of the Post. "And what does that say about our reactive, partisan, hyperventilating media culture?" (For those who don’t know, the Washington Post’s ombudsman is supposed to serve as the newspaper’s independent "internal critic" who "represents readers who have concerns or complaints on topics including accuracy, fairness, ethics and the newsgathering process.")

Pexton complains that the Post story on Blahous’ study went viral, despite the fact that the story’s author, Lori Montgomery, sought to keep it off the front page: "Putting the story on A3 was the right judgment for a print publication. Montgomery urged her editors, correctly, not to put it on the front page: it wasn’t worth that."

So let’s take a look at what actually appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on April 10, 2012: (1) a Maryland vote on tax increases and casino legalization; (2) the violence in Syria; (3) a discussion of the primary challenge to Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.); (4) a discussion of workers at the Economic Development Administration who have been without e-mail for 12 weeks; (5) the sale of 800 patents by AOL to Microsoft for $1 billion.

Every one of these stories, according to ombudsman Pexton, was justly seen by the Post’s editors as being more significant than the possibility that Obamacare would increase the deficit by a half-trillion dollars. Okay.

In Patrick Pexton’s view, the reason why the Blahous story went "viral" on the web is because those of us who write on the web are superficial sensationalists, compared to the sober statesmen of the "old media."

"Putting the story on A3 was the right judgment for a print publication. Montgomery urged her editors, correctly, not to put it on the front page: it wasn’t worth that.

But that’s so old-media. On The Post’s Web site, the story took off, even though it was prominent on the home page for only a short time. It immediately entered the partisan spin cycle of exaggeration, distortion and hyperbole.

First, conservative blogger Matt Drudge linked to it with this subtle headline: "Obamacare explodes deficit." A Forbes magazine blogger, The Post’s own Jennifer Rubin and conservative Web sites then jumped on it.

Pexton would have us believe that Lori Montgomery’s piece for the Post, which was indeed a reasonable discussion of the merits of Blahous’ 52-page study, was the model of old-school journalism, whereas the coverage of "bloggers" was sensationalist.

However, by my count, Montgomery’s piece expended 757 words on Chuck’s study. My blog post, by contrast, contains 2,103 words, with nine updates, 23 hyperlinks, one table, one chart, two supporting videos, and an extensive discussion of the study’s most substantive criticisms. Chuck’s follow-up post was an additional 1,044 words. That’s 3,147 words of coverage: four times the length of Montgomery’s article for the Post.

By Pexton’s account, however, it was internet coverage of the Blahous study that was superficial, in comparison to the deep and thoughtful reporting by the Washington Post. "We in the media like the Web traffic that a story like this attracts. It quickens the media pulse; we all get a frisson of pleasure from being viral on the Internet for a day," wrote Pexton. "But I’m not sure the truth wins. The truth is that every complex law change, every annual federal budget, is a risk. They’re all based on assumptions and forecasts that may or may not come true."

By the way, it’s not just partisan Republicans who take Blahous’ work seriously. Howard Gleckman, a supporter of Obamacare who serves as a budget wonk at the left-leaning Urban Institute, says "Chuck makes some important points in his analysis" in, yes, a blog post for Forbes. "One [point] is the potential double-counting of increased Medicare payroll taxes…due to CBO scoring conventions, the money [the ACA] generates appears to both make the Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund appear more solvent and reduce the general fund deficit. It can’t simultaneously do both, as Chuck correctly notes."

Pexton is entitled to his opinion as to the validity of the Blahous study. But instead of weighing the substantive merits of the various points of view, he lazily describes the debate about the study as partisan squabbling. And it’s the internet that’s distorting the coverage?

I’m of the view that America’s fiscal crisis is of profound significance, and that a potential $600 billion swing in the fiscal cost of the Affordable Care Act is worth rigorous examination. Pexton’s considered opinion is that the gambling laws of Maryland are more important. It’s a free country.

Original Source:



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