The Impossibility of Dispelling "Death Panel" Myths

In an age of blogs and reflexive fact-checking, how did the lies take over?

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The Atlantic's own James Fallows fired off a bombshell last night against one Elizabeth McCaughey, a political operative who successfully manipulated the media to derail health care in the 1990s. He thought the blogosphere--with its reflexive fact-checking and skeptical instincts--would not be fooled. He now believes he was wrong:

The flow of argument makes it appear that "death panel" has won the battle of political ideas, as "no exit" did 15 years ago...I said two weeks ago that I thought today's communications systems had caught up with people who invented facts. I was wrong.

Is that so? In a concrete sense, the victory of "death panel" critics is clear in the submission of the Senate Finance Committee to deleting the contested provision. This morning, however, the New York Times leads with analysis that attempts to expose the political subterfuge at the root of the "death panel" myth. But as Paul Krugman argues in the same pages, more fact-checking may not be the answer.

Why has the media failed to defeat death-panel rumors?

  • Overt Manipulation, say Jim Rutenberg and Jackie Calms in the New York Times. "Rather, [the death panel rumor] has a far more mainstream provenance, openly emanating months ago from many of the same pundits and conservative media outlets that were central in defeating President Bill Clinton's health care proposals 16 years ago, including the editorial board of The Washington Times, the American Spectator magazine and Betsy McCaughey."
  • Blogs Make Disinformation Easier to Spread,  says Rachel Sklar in an excellent round-up of the debate at Mediaite. "This message machine has so many more amplifiers: Blogs and Twitter and YouTube and Drudge and HuffPo and 24-hour cable news shows who shout first and fact-check later."
  • Too Many Facts, Too Little Passion, says Paul Krugman in the New York Times. "What's still missing, however, is a sense of passion and outrage -- passion for the goal of ensuring that every American gets the health care he or she needs, outrage at the lies and fear-mongering that are being used to block that goal."
  • Discomfort with the Real Issues, says Philip Klein of the American Spectator. "Nobody wants to be the heartless person who puts a price on human life and argues that we cannot afford to give a patient treatment that will mean the difference between death and survival."
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