The New York Times’ dangerous and misleading Trumpcare coverage

Both sides don’t do it.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Wednesday night, on the eve of a vote to strip 24 million people of their health insurance, the New York Times published a “fact check” that exemplifies the issues with false equivalency journalism.

The piece draws a parallel between a minor misstatement by a Democratic lawmaker and outright deceptive efforts by Republican leaders to sell their health bill. Worse, it actively misrepresents a statement by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and accuses Pelosi of being “misleading” with a statement that is unambiguously true.

This is part of a common genre of reporting that hunts for transgressions by members of each party and then dismally proclaims that Both Sides Do It.

Here, for example, is how the Times tweeted out its supposed fact check:

To justify this claim that both political parties misleading the American people about health policy, New York Times reporter Linda Qiu cites two statements by Republican leaders and two by senior Democrats. But Qiu ends up pairing two false claims from Republicans with a minor misstatement by a senior Democrat and a true statement from Leader Pelosi.

For instance, the piece notes that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed that “under no circumstance can people be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition” under the Republican health bill. This statement is false. In its current form, the Republican bill permits insurers to charge some people with preexisting conditions such high rates that they will not be able to obtain insurance. It also enables insurers to sell inferior plans that may not cover some people’s pre-existing conditions.

Additionally, Qiu cites House Republican Whip Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) false claim that the Republican bill “provides multiple layers of protection for people with pre-existing conditions in ways that Obamacare doesn’t do.”

Then, the Times goes on criticize Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) for saying that “the current version of Trumpcare allows insurance companies to discriminate against the 129 million Americans with pre-existing conditions.” This was an error by Pallone. This 129 million figure is actually the high end of a range estimating the number of people with such conditions.

The statement from Pelosi that is held up as “misleading,” however, is in fact fair and accurate by any reasonable standard. Worse, in the process of criticizing Pelosi, Qiu manages to misrepresent what Pelosi actually said.

Notice what Qiu did here. First, she claims that Pelosi “said the Affordable Care Act insured 17 million children with pre-existing conditions.” Then she accuses Pelosi of using the “upper limit” of a DHS estimate.

But Pelosi didn’t say that the Affordable Care Act insured 17 million children. She said that it insures “up to” 17 million children. Pelosi was clear about the fact that she was using the uppermost point of a range of possible numbers. That’s what the words “up to” mean.

Qiu is hardly the first person to write this kind of Both Sides Do It piece, which compares very real sins by members of one party to minor errors by members of the other party. This entire genre of reporting is far more deceptive than anything that Pelosi or Pallone had to say.

A reader who casually reads through Qiu’s piece — or worse, who only encounters the Times’ tweet promoting the piece — would come away with the false impression that both parties are trying to mislead people in equal measures, perhaps assuming that the whole thing is a wash.

But that’s not the truth. The truth is that one party has woven falsehoods into the core of its efforts to sell a bill that will deny health care to tens of millions of people. The other party’s leader said something that is objectively true.