Public policy is hard. Two-word sound-bites are easy. That's why they drive the news cycle.
Remember "death panels"? Remember "you lie"? Remember, most recently, "bailout bill" -- Mitch McConnell claim that financial regulation allows endless taxpayer-funded bailouts?
Of course you do. That's because the media did our best to keep them alive. After the sound bites hit the news cycle, conservative columnists and TV hosts perused the legislation for language that, seen in a certain light, might corroborate their compatriots' claims. Liberal columnists and TV hosts countered with explanations that death panels were a myth, Obama wasn't lying, and resolution authority isn't an eternal bailout provision. Before long, the entire press seized on these two-word half-truths and turned them into political touchstones whose infamy eclipsed the actual legislation.
This is where we should wring our hands and despair for the fate of the nation ... or maybe not. Before "death panels," managing the cost of end-of-life care was not a headliner item in the health care debate. After "death panels," it was. Before Joe Wilson's outburst, most opinion journalists weren't talking about the intersection of immigration and health care. After "you lie," we had to. Resolution authority had always been at the heart of the financial regulation debate, but it took a devious frame like "bailout bill" to shine a particularly harsh light on the relationship between the resolution fund and creditors in a failed institution.
Misleading conservative frames today act as a kind of news peg around which the entire middlebrow, high-traffic media orients its policy coverage. It's a familiar pattern. Consider the trajectory of "death panels." Liberals blasted the sound-bite. Then some wonky conservatives defended it. Then thoughtful moderates said we already have death panels because some people can't afford health care. Then some libertarians said maybe "death panels" are smart, in principle, but not like Palin suggested. Then objective newspapers took up the issue to seriously look into end-of-life care, while everybody else competed to see who could score the authoritative take. Commentators often say "we need a national debate" about important issues. Well, we had a national debate about end-of-life care. Something like it, anyway. Would it have happened without Palin's Facebook message?
Nobody knows. What we know is that today, policy debates often enter the mainstream media through an undesirable mechanism: pithy fibs from Republicans. The fibs are wrong. But the debates they start can be real. As Atlantic commentator John Thacker once wrote to me, "It's sad, but Sarah Palin and Joe Wilson didn't "kill" the healthcare debate. They stimulated it." I don't want him to be right. What if he is?
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