Tags: obamacare | glitch | stonewalled | sharyl attkisson

The Obamacare 'Glitch': An Excerpt from 'Stonewalled' by Sharyl Attkisson

By    |   Monday, 24 November 2014 10:00 AM

It’s about two weeks later that the Affordable Care Act story falls into my lap, in much the same way that Benghazi did. There hadn’t been any interest by the Evening News lately in my investigative reporting. But mid-morning, I get a phone call from a New York colleague who tells me that, as of right now, the network powers that be want me to focus on Obamacare. In twenty years at CBS News, I rarely know who it is and how high up who decides that we — or I — should be hot on a particular story or why. And when interest later suddenly dissipates, as it usually does, I rarely know exactly how that comes about, either.

Invited into the health-care story, I join a group of CBS News producers and correspondents who are already on the case, and we begin daily conference calls to discuss developments and unanswered questions. We share information and divide responsibilities. As I’d watched the rollout of HealthCare.gov, much like an average consumer, it seemed as if some in the news media were hesitant to call a spade a spade. Or in this case, afraid to call a debacle a debacle. Many had adopted the administration’s chosen term for what’s going wrong: glitch.

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It reminds me of how the media often perpetuates a propaganda lexicon rather than critically examining whether it’s accurate. For me, detecting and resisting disinformation is an avocation: I’m always on the lookout for signs that we’re being worked, whether it’s by Democrats, Republicans, corporations, or other special interests. I’ve become so keen at detecting the techniques, they stick out like a sore thumb. In the case of HealthCare.gov, the media has adopted the administration’s understatement of the website’s massive complications as a “glitch.” While it’s perfectly fine to quote administration officials who want to call it a glitch, we should not promulgate the notion as if we journalists have independently concluded it’s the case. Yet the Washington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and all the networks — have all used the g-word long after the troubles proved to be far beyond what can be fairly described as a glitch.

I look up the definition of glitch. TheFreeDictionary.com defines it as “a minor malfunction, mishap, or technical problem.” Merriam-Webster. com says it’s “an unexpected and usually minor problem; especially: a minor problem with a machine or device (such as a computer).” I then look up disastrous: “very bad or unfortunate . . . terrible: a disastrous report card.”

HealthCare.gov’s failed launch is much closer to being “a disastrous report card” than “a minor malfunction.”

There is, at least for the moment in late October, an appetite for more aggressive coverage of the president’s signature initiative. The problems are proving to be too big and persistent to downplay. Americans are just beginning to suffer a wave of insurance cancellations as a result of Obamacare. The president is taking live fire for the many iterations of assurances, at least thirty-seven, in which he or another top administration official said, “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your health-care plan.” One can almost feel sorry for him as the news media play montages of his past on-camera statements belying today’s reality. But it’s hard to feel sorry for too long, considering written evidence that shows his administration knew all along — and even worked into its formulations — the prediction that millions would, indeed, lose their insurance. It’s figured into Congressional Budget Office projections over the years as well as internal CMS analyses.


Eventually, the administration will acknowledge the cancellations and instigate fixes. But for now, it’s in denial mode. It’s the insurance companies’ fault, they say, and plans aren’t being canceled; people are being automatically switched to “better” plans. Spinners fan out in the press and call it a “kerfuffle” of “manufactured Republican outrage.” But for once, the spin falls flat: even Democrats in Congress are in a lather. Some of them will soon be facing tough reelection campaigns. And they know from their constituents that there’s a groundswell of grassroots anger.

Further proof that government proclamations should be viewed askance, no matter how confidently they’re made, comes from a White House–produced video posted in August 2009 as the Obama administration pushed Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act. It’s one of those PR outreaches that bypassed the newsman and went straight to the public: unfettered and unquestioned. The video featured communications director (and former CBS News correspondent) Linda Douglass of the White House Office of Health Reform debunking “the myth that reform will force you out of your current insurance plan. . . . To the contrary, reform will expand your choices, not eliminate them.” The article slammed critics saying that they “may find the truth a little inconvenient.” Now, in 2013, we know that the “critics” were correct all along — millions are being forced out of their current insurance plans. Despite the conviction with which that White House video attack on health-care opponents was delivered back in 2009, it has proven to be either misinformed or dishonest. Ironically, the title on the banner that introduced the 2009 video, most unfortunate in retrospect, was Facts Are Stubborn Things.

As CBS News moves to get more aggressive on the story, there’s palpable tension and no universal agreement on what our coverage should say. Key managers criticize another correspondents’ health-care report for referring to insurance cancellations occurring under Obamacare.

“Customers aren’t being canceled, they’re being automatically switched to better plans with better coverage,” argues one manager vehemently, adopting the administration’s verbiage, “because they had substandard plans!”

Undoubtedly, there are some previously uninsured customers who will benefit from the Affordable Care Act. But it’s paternalistic for us to claim to know that all of those switched against their will are better off, and just don’t know better.

“We might be able to report they’re getting more coverage, but it’s not up to us to say it’s better coverage,” I say. “If it’s coverage they didn’t want or need and it’s more expensive, it’s not necessarily better for them.”

Another manager voices concerns that to continue our watchdog reporting could give the appearance that we’re “piling on” the beleaguered White House. It sounds like another argument from the administration’s supporters: spinners often accuse us of “piling on” when they want us to ease up on negative coverage. As I’ve mentioned, broadcast producers have adopted the vernacular when they don’t want a story. It’s not a substantive argument and I’m not sure why it ever works, but it does. I’m unsympathetic. We should follow the story where it leads, not be deterred by red herrings.

Other reporters have shared with me experiences about meeting similar roadblocks at the hands of managers using similar language. Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Jeff Gerth disclosed in a footnote in a book he coauthored in 2007, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, how his New York Times bosses killed one of his articles about the Clintons. According to the footnote, “an editor in Washington told [Gerth] the editor in New York decided a second piece [about the Clintons’ Whitewater controversy] would be viewed by readers as ‘piling on’ and spiked it.”

If anyone is to blame for the cascade of critical reports on Health- Care.gov, it’s not the news messengers: it’s those who screwed things up. During my conversation with managers who are worried about “piling on,” I point out that for many months, the news media produced plenty of glowing stories about the Affordable Care Act. We profiled countless individuals and families who would supposedly be helped, and uncritically accepted the promise that people would be able to keep their plans and doctors. If the new reality is less positive, so be it.

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As journalists, we must have a tin ear for the propaganda campaigns that swirl furiously around us. We need to be cognizant of the many attempts to influence or manipulate by spinners and their media surrogates: bloggers, authors of letters to the editor and opinion pieces disguised as news articles, and social media engineers.

By the first week of November, insurance cancellations have reached critical mass and public outrage is so strong, the White House decides it’s time for a mea culpa. It won’t happen at a press conference. It won’t be given during an interview with an adversarial reporter. And an appearance with Jon Stewart is obviously out of the question. Instead, the president’s handlers call one of the friendliest guys on the block for a taped one-on-one: NBC/MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. I don’t blame Todd for answering the call. If they’d called me, I would’ve gone, too. Funny thing is, the White House never calls me for an interview. The interview airs on November 7. The president doesn’t offer an apology off the top. But when Todd presses the point about people losing their insurance, Obama says, “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

Excerpted from the book STONEWALLED: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama's Washington Copyright (c) 2014 by Sharyl Attkisson. Excerpted by permission of Harper Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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I get a phone call from a New York colleague who tells me that, as of right now, the network powers that be want me to focus on Obamacare. In twenty years at CBS News, I rarely know who it is and how high up who decides that we — or I — should be hot on a particular story or why.
obamacare, glitch, stonewalled, sharyl attkisson
Monday, 24 November 2014 10:00 AM
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