How the media went wrong on the CBO “Obamacare” report

When the Congressional Budget Office released its report on the Affordable Care Act on Feb. 4, 2014, the headline in the next morning’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch was, “Health law is called a big jolt to jobs.” The New York Times said, “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force.” The Washington Post said, “Health-care law will prompt over 2 million to quit jobs or cut hours, a CBO report says.”  CNN’s Chuck Todd tweeted, “CBO essentially reaffirms GOP talking points on healthcare. Says it will cost jobs, feel as if it raises taxes and contributes to deficit.” The ultra-conservative National Review gloated with this headline: “CBO report nukes Obamacare.”

They got it wrong.

How did they manage to do that? At best, it was lazy journalism. At worst, it was a corporate news media echo chamber for Republican spin. Mostly, it was an epidemic of latching on to whatever seemed the most dramatic, headline-making, doom-saying aspect of the story. After all, two+ million is a big, juicy number.

People who call themselves “news reporters” and “journalists” appear to have taken the easy way out by not actually reading the report itself but, instead, glomming onto whatever talking points hit their desks first. Republicans are way better at flooding the internet with their spin, so that’s the spin that was passed along as “news” to the general public.

When I first saw the headlines, my heart sank. I don’t think that the Affordable Care Act is the ultimate answer to healthcare reform in America, but it’s a giant leap in the right direction–and it’s something that no other President has been able to accomplish. The headlines made it sound as though “Obamacare” was, indeed, the “job-killer” that Republicans have railed against. It was an early-morning bummer for everyone who has supported and defended the Affordable Care Act.

But then, I did what the official news media should have done: I looked further. And I found, as they should have, that the CBO report actually did not say that ACA would kill jobs. If media people had bothered to ask around just a little bit, they would have learned the following [summarized today in a post by Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice:

The CBO is not predicting any increase in unemployment or underemployment. The CBO report states, “The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a new drop in businesses’ demand for labor.”  This is not about jobs offered by employers, It’s about workers and the choices they will be able to make.   2.5 million people will no longer be tethered to a job in order to have health benefits. They will be able to change jobs, work fewer hours, and retire when they want. This is due to the increase in insurance coverage and the subsidies to help pay premiums made possible by the Affordable Care Act. Workers with pre-existing conditions will also be freer to change or leave jobs because the ACA requires insurers to accept all applicants regardless of their health status.

I must say here that some of the blame for this media debacle goes to the author[s] of the CBO report. Reading the key passages, it’s a challenge to figure out what they’re saying [which leaves it wide open to interpretation–and spin.]

For example, in explaining its “job loss” conclusion, the CBO report says:

The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment (that is, more workers seeking but not finding jobs) or underemployment (such as part-time workers who would prefer to work more hours per week).”

Some follow-up reports have said that this passage essentially “screams that it’s not about actual job losses.” But to me, the phrasing is reminiscent of Greenspan-speak–the kind of convoluted, vague language favored by Alan Greenspan when he was chairman of the Federal Reserve. Words matter–and the CBO authors did a poor job of expressing their message in plain English.

That said, it still doesn’t excuse media people for getting it wrong. If you don’t understand it–ask. Don’t just copy and paste the talking points spewed out by Republican spinmeisters, who–always looking for ways to dis Obamacare–pounced on the CBO’s unclear explanation and spun it into the job-killing meme they so dearly love.

I’m also assigning some blame to President Obama and his staff. Did they not understand that this report would be a hot potato? Why wasn’t President Obama right out there, touting the good news that the Affordable Care Act was freeing people from the need for second and third crappy jobs as a way of paying for their health care pre-ACA? The White House–or its spokespeople, or members of the Democratic caucus, or Democratic governors–should be repeating the phrase “job lock” over and over. Breaking the chains of “job lock”–the situation in which workers are stuck in their jobs because that’s the only way they can get health insurance–was one of the primary goals of the Affordable Care Act. And here’s the CBO report telling us that the strategy is working!  That should be the headline. But once again, the Obama Administration is behind the news curve–letting the Republican spin machine define the terms and dominate the coverage.

This morning, things are looking a bit better. People are catching on to what happened yesterday and getting the message straight. The New York Times editorial page did a good job of righting the wrong in a morning-after editorial. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker took the time to clear up a lot of misconceptions. But I haven’t seen a lot of evidence of outright retractions in the media. And I doubt that there will be very many. The right-wing world will, of course, continue to push the “job-killer” meme and use the erroneous headlines–from mainstream media– as justification. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of the headlines are featured in campaign advertising. And that’s especially sad, because, just as the “repeal-Obamacare” mantra was beginning to lose its mojo–as more people start reaping ACA benefits–the false characterization of the CBO report offers new fake fodder for Republican candidates to use in their 2014 election campaigns.