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Journalism And The Republican Health Plan: Covering Class Warfare Dressed Up As Policy

Steve Almond: We need a Fourth Estate that acts as an honest broker of the truth, writes Steve Almond. Millions of lives are at stake.
Pictured: House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. uses charts and graphs to make his case for the GOP's long-awaited plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. A Congressional Budget Office analysis concluded that 24 million fewer Americans will have health coverage under the proposal, despite President Donald Trump's promise of "insurance for everybody." (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Steve Almond: We need a Fourth Estate that acts as an honest broker of the truth, writes Steve Almond. Millions of lives are at stake. Pictured: House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. uses charts and graphs to make his case for the GOP's long-awaited plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. A Congressional Budget Office analysis concluded that 24 million fewer Americans will have health coverage under the proposal, despite President Donald Trump's promise of "insurance for everybody." (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

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As we all know by now, the Congressional Budget Office just issued its report on the new GOP bill that seeks to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare.

The report offers a stark and detailed picture of what this proposed legislation would actually do: gut Medicaid, slash the ACA’s insurance subsidies, and free up insurance companies to charge older Americans 500 percent more than they charge young Americans.

The central question now is how the media chooses to present the CBO’s projections.

Because we all know what the president is going to do. Namely, spout the outlandish promises of a salesman at a get-rich-quick seminar.

...a 64-year-old with an income of $26,500 currently pays $1,700 under Obamacare. That same person would pay $14,600 under the GOP plan, or more than half his or her income.

He promises his health care plan will be "a thing of beauty,” which is true only if you're loaded. Because the bill amounts to a $600 billion tax break for the rich while ripping insurance from an estimated 24 million Americans, most of them poor. It’s class warfare in the guise of public policy.

An interactive analysis by The New York Times provides a stunning example of how the GOP bill would sock older Americans. To wit: A 64-year-old with an income of $26,500 currently pays $1,700 under Obamacare. That same person would pay $14,600 under the GOP plan, or more than half his or her income.

This is a fine example of the media at its best, breaking down a complex law in a way that allows readers to understand, objectively, what’s at stake for them. And this is an especially important duty at an historical moment in which GOP leaders, the president and his spokespeople openly traffic in disinformation.

We need a Fourth Estate that acts as an honest broker of the truth — millions of lives are at stake.

Unfortunately, the Times’s lead story about the CBO report — the one folks are most likely to see —provides a summary that is so inadequate it struck me as irresponsible. Consider the headline and its at-a-glance takeaway:

Bill would add 24 million uninsured

But save $337 billion, report says

Note the confounding use of the verb “add.” The bill will not “add” uninsured people. It will cause 24 million people to lose insurance. What’s more, that $337 billion “saved” comes over the course of an entire decade and is the result of the bill gouging $880 billion from Medicaid, which is, again, health care for poor people.

The CBO report makes clear that the GOP bill is, at the level of policy, an absolute disaster, a plan that will hurt tens of millions of Americans and desecrate our health care system, for no greater good beyond enriching the few and fulfilling a nihilistic campaign promise.

This is why Republicans have been working so hard to discredit the nonpartisan CBO. They want this debate to be political, not policy-based.

Fear not, greedheads: the Times stands ready to help! Which is why the fourth paragraph of their story reads as follows:

“But [the CBO report] also provided talking points for House Republican leaders who need the support of rebellious conservatives to pass the measure: lower deficits, reduced federal spending and tax cuts.”

Yes, if there’s one thing serious journalists should be writing about a major piece of legislation that threatens to leave 24 million Americans without medical coverage, it’s definitely those crucial Republican talking points!

I realize it may seem petty to criticize a single story in the Times. So let’s look at the Grey Lady's peers, as well — the papers that, along with the Times, are standard bearers for the so-called mainstream media. In their coverage of the CBO report, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post chose headlines that herald that “millions” would be insured.

They just don’t mention how many. Five million? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

The whole point of the CBO report — what makes it so astonishing — is that it provides a specific estimate of how many Americans will lose insurance: 24 million. What a stunning indictment of a senseless, ill-conceived and cruel piece of legislation. Our major newspapers should have the courage to say so, rather than abdicating their power and framing the report as the opening salvo in yet another dreary partisan battle.

...when newspapers relegate criticism of the GOP health care plan to their opinion pages, they only reinforce the bogus notion that objections to the bill are partisan.

I know they know this, but I suspect that they’ve become so afraid of being tagged as having a “liberal bias” that their default mode is to traffic in false equivalencies. Worse, when newspapers relegate criticism of the GOP health care plan to their opinion pages, they only reinforce the bogus notion that objections to the bill are partisan.

The whole point of having a nonpartisan entity, the CBO, score bills is to cut beneath the rhetoric and spin, to make sure voters know exactly who’s going to win and who’s going to lose if this bill is made law.

Seven years ago, the GOP, working in concert with right-wing propagandists, managed to sell much of the country on the myth of death panels, a clever bit of propaganda that nearly derailed Obamacare.

Our free press now has an obligation to stop hyping talking points and stick with the facts. Tell the American people what they deserve to know about this sickening bill, before it’s too late.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is a writer. His new book, "Bad Stories: Toward A Unified Theory of How It All Came Apart," will be out in March 2018. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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