In the Arena

Op-Ed Pages and Lying

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Here’s how it should work: I’m a columnist and I have a right to my opinions but, in the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I don’t have a right to my own facts. And so every column I write is checked assiduously by Time Magazine researchers. Occasionally, we screw up. Left-wing readers still haven’t let me forget the mistake I made on a FISA column (it was corrected as soon as I double-checked my sources, including the Democratic source I’d misinterpreted, and figured out where I had gone wrong). You may not like my opinions, but you can pretty much rely on the fact-based portions of any given column. 

That is not true with newspapers. Several years ago, the first New York Times ombudsman, Dan Okrent, created a stir by pointing out factual errors in the columns of Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. (We all make them, by the way–being human and all that.) But those sorts of checks are few and far between–and today we have examples of two mainstream newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, retailing outright whoppers on their op-ed pages.

First, the Journal. It is a mainstream, often excellent, newspaper–except for its editorial and op-ed pages, which are somewhat to the right of King Louis the XIV. Today, the Journal devotes the top 40% of its op-ed page to a meretricious piece of crap by Fred Barnes about the great success of the Republican Party’s effort to block President Obama’s agenda. He has a right to cheerlead, even if it’s decidedly premature to assume that the President’s agenda will be blocked. (I’m still convinced that some form of health reform will pass this year.) In any case, I suppose it’s borderline ok for Barnes to celebrate Dick Cheney’s repulsive effort to demagogue the attempt to close Guantanamo–although the relentless Alexandra Silver, my frequent fact-checker, would probably have emailed Barnes to say, “But isn’t it true that we already have [insert-precise-number-here] convicted terrorists and terrorist suspects being detained in the domestic U.S.? Don’t we have to mention that?”)

The lack of editorial rigor at the Wall Street Journal is lamentable. What is reprehensible is Barnes’ reassertion of Sarah Palin’s death panel fantasia: “Columnists disputed her claim, then realized she had a point. The death panels are dead, for now.” Of course, it has been widely established that the death panels never existed. Doesn’t the Wall Street Journal have some responsibility to point out–as the pathetic Charles Grassley did on Face the Nation–that  “pulling the plug on granny” was never part of the program? Is there an ombudsman in the house or do we, as a society, have to live with the fact that the newspaper read by the nation’s business elite is willing to print blatant lies for political effect?

On to the Washington Post, which does have an ombudsman, and today offers valuable op-ed space to Michael Steele, the chair of the Republican Party. Now, granted, the standards for these sort of advocacy pieces by partisans are lower than by normal op-ed columnists. But again, what about the facts? Steele starts out with this blatantly false statement:

President Obama’s plan for a government-run health-care system is the wrong prescription. 

Needless to say, there is no such plan. In fact, the single biggest mistake Obama has made has been his reluctance to set out a plan: some specific requirements–without writing a 1300 page piece of legislation, as the Clintons did–that he deems necessary in a signable health care reform bill. But that’s another column.

What makes Steele’s column especially hilarious is that it’s about health care for senior citizens–actually, it’s an attempt to scare senior citizens–but it never mentions that Medicare is “a government-run health-care system.” One would think that the Washington Post’s intrepid editors would have force Steele to cut or modify Steele’s lie about Obama’s “government-run” plan, and one would hope that the Post’s editors would ask Steele to point out the Medicare–the program he wants to “save”–is precisely such a plan. 

One last point: A strong argument can be made that Obama isn’t  being honest about all this, either. Medicare is going to require some drastic reform if isn’t going to (a) go broke or (b) break the bank. The most plausible reform would be to abandon the current fee-for-service system and put doctors on salaries, as the excellent Mayo Clinic does. But doctors oppose that. So no go….Meanwhile, paging an ombudsman!