Monday, October 26, 2009

An Example of Shoddy Journalism

When I was in college, studying to be a journalist, one of the first things I learned dealt with the reality of anonymous sources. Two weeks into my Introduction to Journalism class, my professor, Dr. Joe Cosco, told us that -- whenever possible -- we should avoid using and quoting anonymous sources.

The line of thinking was thus: if a source isn't willing to put his or her name on something, then they either don't have the authority or clearance to say it, or it's not true. Dr. Cosco did admit there were times where anonymous sources couldn't be avoided, but using them, as a rule, wasn't a good idea.

I recount that story because of an article that appeared on The Huffington Post over the weekend, written by Sam Stein and Ryan Grim. With the huge red headline "Leaderless," the article quoted numerous anonymous sources claiming President Obama was against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's push to add a public option with an opt-out clause for states to the health care reform bill in that chamber.

According to the sources, Obama preferred a public option with a trigger -- which has been supported by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- that would establish benchmarks that the health insurance industry would have to meet; if those benchmarks weren't met after a period of time, the public option would take effect.

Thing is ... the trigger would never be tripped, because the insurance industry could always fudge its numbers to make it appear as if they're meeting the benchmarks, even if they're not. Not to mention how deep into the pockets of many politicians the insurance industry is; a trigger could in effect kill the public option, even if one is in the final bill. In essence, a triggered public option would result in RINO -- Reform In Name Only.

The only source in Stein and Grim's story to be named was Dan Pfeiffer, a top White House aide who called the report false when talking to the website Talking Points Memo. Every other source in the story is anonymous, some nameless quote claiming to have intimate knowledge of negotiations.

If that sounds a little suspect, it probably is.

President Obama has repeatedly expressed his preference for a public option; though he has never explicitly said he would sign a bill without it and has remained open to other ideas, the President has, time and again, said he felt the public option was the best way to accomplish his goals of lowering costs and introducing competition in the marketplace. Four of the five health care reform bills in Congress include a public option, and Reid insists he's close to getting the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster on the opt-out public option.

And, for what it's worth, Stein reported on Sunday that the White House denied the initial report, saying it was "absolutely false" and that Obama and Reid were on the same page. The initial report claimed the President was backing the trigger idea in an effort to get Sen. Snowe to vote for the final bill, so Obama could call the bill bipartisan.

"A rumor is making the rounds that the White House and Senator Reid are pursuing different strategies on the public option," Pfeiffer wrote in The White House Blog on Sunday. "Those rumors are absolutely false."

Pfeiffer recalled President Obama's speech before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 9, where he made a clear case for the public option, claming it was his preference and likening it to the country's ability to choose between public and private universities. While many in Congress have either changed their mind when it comes to the public option -- which some in the House are now calling "Medicare part E" -- and others have refused to commit one way or another, the President has been consistent in his message: though the public option is just one sliver of reform, it is important and, he believes, the best way to lower costs and keep the insurance companies honest.

Keep in mind: this process is far from over. The House still needs to combine its three bills into one, and the Senate is currently in the process of merging the Finance Committee bill with the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee bill. Once those things happen, each bill will be put up for a vote in each chamber. Then, the House and the Senate will get together to merge their individual bills, with a final bill possibly reaching President Obama's desk by Christmas.

We're farther along than we've ever been in this process, but there's still a long way to go. We need to keep up the pressure, both on the White House and our representatives in Congress. The insurance lobbyists continue to fight against reform, and they have deep pockets. We need to be louder than them, as loud as we were back in November when we elected Obama.

But you know what else would help? The mainstream media reporting the actual facts, instead of relying on anonymous sources to stoke anger and fear among a populus that stands to benefit greatly should health care reform -- with a robust public option -- pass. Shame on the mainstream media, and shame on The Huffington Post; they should know better.

Maybe they need to take Introduction to Journalism again.

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