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3 August 2001

Our current howler (part III): What’s in a word?

Synopsis: When Dems and Reps fought the Medicare wars, the key facts were never disputed.

Republican Leaders Win Battle By Defining Terms of Combat
David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, The Washington Post, 10/29/95

When Dems and Reps fought the Medicare wars, the facts were right in plain sight. For more than two years, our news shows were dominated by the cloying dispute; party reps emitted the same scripted soundbites night after night after night. Democrats said the new Gingrich Congress was trying to "cut" the Medicare program. Republicans swore that there were no "cuts," they were just "reducing the rate at which the program would grow." The dispute raged on from late 1994 until the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Only then—when the two parties agreed on a (gimmicked-up) budget deal—did the silly dispute become moot.

And all throughout this pseudo-debate, the relevant facts were transparent. No one ever disputed these facts, although the third fact was quite rarely mentioned:

    1. In 1995, the federal government was spending $4800 per recipient in the Medicare program.
    2. Under terms of the proposed GOP budget plan, the government would spend $6700 per recipient in the year 2002.
    3. According to official CBO estimates, it would cost $8000 per recipient in 2002 to maintain the existing Medicare program.

Those basic facts were not in dispute. Nor were they exactly a secret; on Sunday, October 29, 1995, for example, the Washington Post ran a lengthy, page-one article by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf. The 3200-word piece would become part of the authors’ widely-reviewed book, "Tell Newt to Shut Up." In the Post—and then in "Tell Newt"—the writers laid out the basic facts:

MARANISS AND WEISSKOPF: Republicans say average spending per Medicare recipient under their plan would rise from $4,800 to $6,700 in seven years. But Democrats say that is misleading, because it would cost $8,000 per beneficiary under the current system to provide today's level of services. And the Republican plan would increase premiums for most Medicare recipients, as well as limit fees to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes.

Maraniss and Weisskopf didn’t say where the Dems got that $8000 estimate. Again, they got it from the CBO (which was then under GOP supervision). It was the agency’s official projection of what it would cost to keep running the existing Medicare program in 2002.

In 1995, those facts were out in plain sight. No one ever tried to dispute them. But the parties described them in two different ways. Republicans noted that $6700 is more than $4800, and therefore asserted that, under their plan, Medicare "would continue to grow." Democrats noted that $6700 is less than $8000, and referred to the GOP plan as a "cut." For the record, President Clinton and his top aides also described their own Medicare proposal as a "cut" (links below). And in fairness to the much-maligned Clinton, something else is perfectly clear—proposals of this type had always been described by both parties as "cuts" in the past.

But out of all the turmoil and tumult, a classic "semantic" dispute was born. The key facts were transparent, and were never disputed; for two solid years, the parties argued over what words to use in describing them. This was a war about spin. As the Maraniss/Weisskopf articles made clear, Republicans had decided—on the basis of extensive focus group sessions—that they should never use the traditional term "cut" to describe their Medicare proposal. And so for two solid years, night after night, the parties battled over a word. They did this even though everyone agreed on the basic facts which underlay the dispute.

What should the press corps have done in this circumstance? The way to resolve a semantic dispute is to look for ways to describe the key facts without using the disputed terminology. In this case, the key question was obvious: Could the GOP maintain existing Medicare services at $6700 per recipient? If not, then future services would be reduced, even as dollar spending grew. It was perfectly easy to explain the situation. Republicans proposed spending more money in future years, but less money than the CBO said it would cost to maintain the existing program.

But night after night, the battle dragged on, without intervention by the press corps. Simply put, the Washington press corps lacked the skill to clarify this bonehead dispute. And now a similar dispute is beginning, involving the future of Social Security. If we’re going to have an informed discussion, we can’t afford to get dragged back down into years of semantic debate.

Will SS become a "semantic" dispute? Warning signs are on the horizon. Again, all the key facts are out in plain view, and experts are engaging in battles that begin to evoke the cloying fight over "cuts." Do we or don’t we have a "trust fund?" Experts want to duke it out. But we need to avoid useless fights about that if we want clarity in the debate that is looming.

Next: Once again, they agree on the facts.

Visit our incomparable archives: In 1995, the GOP proposed spending less in future years than it would cost to maintain the existing Medicare program. In the past, both parties had always described this kind of proposal as a "cut." And Clinton routinely used the same term to describe his own Medicare proposal. Despite this, he was routinely assailed as a liar. See our incomparable "Clinton Speaks" or "The Speaker’s New Language." You know what to do. Just click here.


The occasional update (8/3/01)

Broken news: It’s embarrassing to watch the cable nets struggling to gimmick more "news" out of Chandra. At the start of the week, they squeezed two days from the hapless "key guy," who plainly didn’t know what he was talking about. Then, they got several more days from the parking lot nonsense. Even the big names are willing to look like fools. On Wednesday, CNN’s Judy Woodruff announced the "Breaking News" when the thrilling parking lot "tip" came in. But alas—Thursday’s "Breaking News" on the net was that Wednesday’s "Breaking News" was a hoax. And yes, the net still was using the "Breaking News" designation. Is there a word for this clowning? Try "repulsive."

Meanwhile, where do bad facts come from? On Friday, the Levys inaccurately said, in their daily press briefing, that Chandra’s last phone calls had come from Condit (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/31/01). They withdrew the claim later on that day, admitting that they had no information. Their disclaimer was reported in Saturday’s Newsday. If our press culture valued accuracy, word would have spread through the press.

But on Monday night—three days later—your loudmouth cable hosts still hadn’t heard. On CNBC, Geraldo Rivera and Norah O’Donnell engaged in an embarrassing exchange on the matter. The bogus fact was restated on Larry King Live. And as usual, Paula Zahn outdid the whole gang, playing the tape of the Levys’ false statement! Hay-yo! Word travels slowly among these incompetents. And here’s a passage from yesterday’s Washington Times, six days after the Levys retracted their unfounded and false asssertion:

MURRAY: Since Friday, the Levys disclosed for the first time:
*That Mr. Condit was the last person known to have telephoned their daughter before she disappeared on May 1. Miss Levy was last seen outside the Washington Sports Club outlet on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Let’s review. The Levys disavowed this "disclosure" last Friday. Last Saturday, Newsday made the facts nice and clear. But yesterday, Frank Murray was still passing on the bogus claim. Translation? Accuracy plays a minor role in press culture. When false accusations are withdrawn and corrected, it doesn’t get discussed within the press corps, and our journalists—including our millionaire anchors—just keep passing the bogus facts on. Nowhere else, in any sector, do people behave with such routine incompetence. Can you be this dumb where you work?

Levys renew implications of Condit
Frank Murray, The Washington Times, 8/2/01