Time's Klein Complains of 'Cruelty' of 'Scaring the Elderly to Score Political Points'

"The cruelty inherent in scaring the elderly to score political points is beyond reprehensible.... [T]he sort of scurrilous campaign they are conducting--the seditious fear-mongering that is the main staple of their public diet--is a matter of profound disrespect and incivility toward the individuals whose rights they claim to cherish."

So huffed Time magazine's Joe Klein, in an August 12 Swampland blog post seething at rumors of "death panels" being provided for in health care reform legislation before Congress. Klein expressed disgust at Republicans who would seek political advantage by scaring the elderly with inaccurate and misleading rhetoric.

But one might wonder where Klein's moral indignation was during the 1990s, when the liberal media, including Time magazine, were complicit in bolstering the Democratic meme about drastic Republican "cuts" to Medicare.

As MRC archives show, the liberal media was complicit with liberal Democrats in the 1990s in scaring seniors into fearing non-existent "cuts" to Medicare. From the July 1996 MediaWatch (emphasis mine):

In the last 18 months, reporters have made Medicare "cuts" an essential part of its method of underlining the "extremism" of the Republican Congress. The GOP's balanced-budget plan called for a $270 billion reduction in projected Medicare increases over seven years (with spending per recipient scheduled to increase from $4,800 to $7,100), but "cuts" remained the most popular paradigm of reporting.

To determine the accuracy of Medicare coverage, MediaWatch analysts reviewed 1,134 news stories in three newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today) and three news magazines (Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report) from January 1, 1995 to June 30, 1996. Employing the Nexis news data retrieval system to secure every news mention of "Medicare" within 10 words of "cut," "reduce," "slash," "scale back," and "savings," analysts found 1,060 examples of journalists describing Medicare "cuts."

Analysts counted multiple references within stories, but only references to overall Medicare spending growth, and did not include references to specifics, such as smaller reimbursements to doctors and hospitals. Also omitted were references to "saving" Medicare, which do not refer to spending. Analysts did include descriptions that did not match the search terms ("gut," "trim," "shrink," "chop," "slice," "curtail").

Other less harsh and inaccurate terms were also used. References to "savings" were most common, with 439 mentions. "Cuts in the growth" of Medicare spending drew 347 uses, and "cuts in projected spending" appeared 115 times. But the 901 uses of these terms were outnumbered by the 1,060 uses of "cut" variants. In this sample of stories inaccurate terminology drew more than half (54 percent) of journalistic declarations of Medicare's up-or-down fiscal fate.


Out of 63 stories, Time employed 49 descriptions of "cuts," to 20 uses of "cuts in growth," nine of "savings," and two of "cuts in projected spending." The May 15, 1995 "The Week" news summary read: "The President's strategists were not about to offer Republicans a hand with their balanced-budget/tax-cut promises by agreeing to deep slashes in Medicare." Richard Lacayo wrote on February 12, 1996 that a flat tax "could mean either a higher deficit or even heavier spending cuts in such places as Medicare." 

What's more, while the most drastic caricatures of the "death panels" floating around are false,  there are valid reasons for concern worthy of debate, as Washington Post editorial staffer Charles Lane detailed in an August 8 column (emphasis and hyperlink are mine)

Though not mandatory, as some on the right have claimed, the consultations envisioned in Section 1233 aren't quite "purely voluntary," as Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) asserts. To me, "purely voluntary" means "not unless the patient requests one." Section 1233, however, lets doctors initiate the chat and gives them an incentive -- money -- to do so. Indeed, that's an incentive to insist.

Patients may refuse without penalty, but many will bow to white-coated authority. Once they're in the meeting, the bill does permit "formulation" of a plug-pulling order right then and there. So when Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) denies that Section 1233 would "place senior citizens in situations where they feel pressured to sign end-of-life directives that they would not otherwise sign," I don't think he's being realistic.

What's more, Section 1233 dictates, at some length, the content of the consultation. The doctor "shall" discuss "advanced care planning, including key questions and considerations, important steps, and suggested people to talk to"; "an explanation of . . . living wills and durable powers of attorney, and their uses" (even though these are legal, not medical, instruments); and "a list of national and State-specific resources to assist consumers and their families." The doctor "shall" explain that Medicare pays for hospice care (hint, hint).

Admittedly, this script is vague and possibly unenforceable. What are "key questions"? Who belongs on "a list" of helpful "resources"? The Roman Catholic Church? Jack Kevorkian?

Ideally, the delicate decisions about how to manage life's end would be made in a setting that is neutral in both appearance and fact. Yes, it's good to have a doctor's perspective. But Section 1233 goes beyond facilitating doctor input to preferring it. Indeed, the measure would have an interested party -- the government -- recruit doctors to sell the elderly on living wills, hospice care and their associated providers, professions and organizations. You don't have to be a right-wing wacko to question that approach.

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