Everyone loathes the media, including the media. In late November, as the Obamacare disaster continued to unfold, there was so much blame to go around that even journalists who aren’t conservative started directing some of it at other journalists. Appearing on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, Mark Halperin of Time told guest hostess Laura Ingraham: “There is no doubt that the press failed to scrutinize this program at the time of passage and during the context of the president’s re-election. I think any reporter who would argue otherwise would be putting their head in the sand.”
Although that’s a familiar critique to readers of this column, it’s a surprising one coming from Halperin, a journalist who is not known to be conservative and thus can be assumed to be at least somewhat leftish. But there was a critique of Obamacare press coverage from the left as well, offered the day before Thanksgiving by Paul Waldman, on the website of The American Prospect, of which he is a senior editor.
Waldman’s essay was titled “The Media Need to Do More to Help People Navigate Obamacare” and subtitled “The fact that a law is controversial doesn’t absolve them of their resonsibility [sic] to guide the public through it.” Waldman claimed that journalists have a “responsibility” (he spelled it correctly in the body) not only to provide “audiences with practical information that could help them navigate the new system,” but to provide such information “repeatedly or people won’t get it.” Waldman quoted Timothy Noah, a like-minded journalist, who moaned: “The New York Times has published the URL for the New York exchange exactly twice, both before October first.”
Waldman did address a counterargument from conservatives—but since the “conservatives” he was answering were figments of his imagination, they were particularly stupid:
Of course, conservatives would allege that if a newspaper writes a guide to getting insurance through the new exchange, it has demonstrated its liberal bias and become an arm of the Obama administration. But it’s the law. As of next year, if you don’t get insurance through your employer, you need to go to an exchange. Media outlets would just be helping people do what they have to do. I suppose conservatives could also argue that if the local paper puts up a tool on its website that helps people find their polling places and tells them what the voting hours are, it’s just trying to boost turnout, and everybody knows that helps Democrats. Or that if it reminds you to file your tax returns on April 15th, then it’s just helping fund big government. Or that if it tells you to set your clocks back for daylight savings, it’s just feeding the Illuminati/Bilderberg time-theft conspiracy.
Actually, that last one is true. Readers who followed the newspaper’s advice would arrive at work on Monday two hours late. Waldman’s phantasmic conservative had him anxious to turn the clock back. But here’s a response from a real conservative:
What Waldman was describing is a genre of reporting known as “service journalism” (or, an expression Waldman employed, “news you can use”). Common forms of service journalism include advice columns, investment reports, reviews, and listings of restaurants, movies, plays, and other entertainments, and to a lesser extent book reviews.
There’s nothing objectionable about service journalism, which can be useful and fun to read. Nor is there anything objectionable about service journalism that informs readers about Obamacare, provided the news organization adheres to the same standards of accuracy and impartiality it would apply to any other subject.
What is objectionable, however, is Waldman’s claim that news organizations have a journalistic “responsibility” to provide service journalism on that particular subject—that doing so is, as Waldman puts it, “part of any major media outlet’s mission.” No one would say that about film reviews or advice columns. Service journalism is a peripheral form of news.
An interesting example of service journalism about Obamacare appeared in July on the op-ed page of the Washington Times. It was written by Dean Clancy of FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party group, and it explained how to avoid the Obamacare mandate tax:
Under Section 1501 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, we’re required to certify on our yearly tax return whether we have “acceptable” coverage. However, the Internal Revenue Service is forbidden to use any penalty to enforce the mandate, except for a user-fee payment, which the IRS can only collect at the end of the year out of any tax refund we may be owed. This means we can simply sidestep the fee by carefully adjusting our withholdings to avoid being owed a refund. As for the amount, it’s comparatively small: in 2014, just $95, or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater, rising to $695 or 2.5 percent of income in 2016 and thereafter. It’s a pittance compared to the cost of compliance.
The op-ed was part of FreedomWorks’s campaign called (as was the op-ed) “Burn Your Obamacare Card.” In a later post on the topic, Waldman disapproved of the effort, astutely noting—news you can use!—“there is no such thing as an Obamacare card.”
Is there any doubt that Waldman wanted Obamacare service journalism to serve a hortatory purpose, not merely an informative one? That is, he wanted news organizations to encourage their audiences to sign up because that would boost the likelihood that Obamacare would prove successful (politically, economically, or by whatever other measure one might devise).
He wanted reporters, in other words, to act as if they were Obamacare navigators, but without the government grants and contractor paychecks. Any self-respecting journalist, no matter how liberal, will recoil at that notion. It’s one thing for an opinion writer to argue for a policy, but service journalism whose purpose is to serve the government is an abomination.
On the other hand, there’s no denying Halperin had a point. His November 2013 comment reminded me of something I read in March 2010, just after the House passed Obamacare. The writer, who worked for a mainstream newsmagazine, was predicting political success for Democrats that November:
Democrats will be joined in the fray by much of the press. For Republicans, this will seem like familiar ground, since generations of conservatives have complained that the so-called mainstream media have been biased against them. Well, get ready, Republicans, for déjà vu all over again. The coverage through November likely will highlight the most extreme attacks on the President and his law and spotlight stories of real Americans whose lives have been improved by access to health care.…
The louder Republicans yell, the more they will be characterized and caricatured as sore losers infuriated by the first major delivery of candidate Obama’s promise of “change.” The focus on the weekend’s alleged racial and gay-bashing verbal attacks by opponents of the Democrats’ plan should be a caution to Republican strategists trying to figure out how to manage the media this year.
The author—this never gets old—was Mark Halperin.
So Halperin and Waldman, each in his own way, turn out to be self-loathing journalists. Waldman loathes journalism itself, or at least the ideals it proclaims in a free society. Halperin loathes himself, or at least his younger self.
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