A willing suspension of disbelief is essential to enjoying a good play, but it’s a disaster when the media adopts it in place of skepticism — especially toward those in government.
And yet, that is exactly what happened with the Affordable Care Act. It’s hard to not to conclude that the media willingly suspended disbelief when it came to the many claims made by President Obama, legislators and other supporters of the Affordable Care Act. The now-obvious 2013 “lie of the year,” for example, was anything but obvious before millions lost the insurance coverage they liked. Why?
Taken together with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber’s recently revealed admission that deception was part of the plan all along, it’s fair to ask what happened to our watchdog press. There has been much gnashing of teeth over Professor Gruber’s candor but virtually no self-examination by the media of its role in perpetrating a fraudulent sales job on the American people.
Indeed, in retrospect it appears as if the administration counted on a compliant media not asking the hard questions. This disinterest in the truth, as much as the lies themselves, has contributed to the mistrust and anger that divides the nation.
When the CIA failed to predict the fall of Iran there was deserved criticism of its failure to fulfill its fundamental mission. That same kind of criticism should be a part of the public conversation now about the role of the media in missing deliberate efforts by this administration to employ outright falsehoods to pervert “consent of the governed.” Only with deception, says Gruber, could the law win enactment. He accepted deception “for the greater good” but the media should not have. It was a failure of its most fundamental duty in a free society.
Critics were ignored, publicly dismissed or even ridiculed on editorial pages and within news reports. Many predicted, well in advance of enactment, that “keeping our doctors” or rate savings were fictions. It seems obvious now that the media chose taking sides, rather than maintaining a healthily adversarial relationship with government officials. A hundred day “honeymoon” is fair for new administrations. A five-year honeymoon is closer to what we actually got.
Reporters are human, too, and it is understandable that they were swept up in the passion for a new beginning and the audacity of hope. But editors are supposed to be above, or at least inured to, such frailties and keep everybody honest. In this case, they failed. Unless they accept this failure we can’t expect that they have changed.
Informed consent is the bedrock beneath our kind of government. It is not surprising that officials will try to mislead. It’s happened before and it will happen again. But propaganda cannot be allowed to go unchallenged by a free press without turning the whole American idea of self-determination on its head.
Off-the-record handling sessions, the shutdown of sources, hacking reporter’s computers, the prosecution of reporters and even the illegal collection of the Associated Press’ office and cell phone records should have been the alarm that woke our media up to the fact that this White House will do or say anything to advance its goals — up to and including outright lies and violations of the First Amendment.
The press must learn from its failure to be skeptical with a popular president or media outlets risk losing all credibility and we risk losing the ability to actually direct our government, short of wholesale changes at election time. Learning begins by accepting mistakes. Will editors and reporters have the humility now to reflect and admit that they didn’t do their jobs?
Ken Hoagland is chairman of Restore America’s Voice, a grassroots advocacy group that has delivered two million petitions to Congress urging repeal of the Affordable Care Act.