In a post on fact-checking of the "death panel" myth last week, I noted the tendency of media outlets to revert to "he said," "she said" reporting on false or misleading claims that they have previously debunked. Since then, Media Matters has flagged two more leading news outlets that have reverted to treating the claim as a matter of legitimate factual dispute.
Sarah Palin is taking on President Obama in the battle over health care. In a new Facebook posting, the former governor says the president is, quote, making light of concerns about a provision in the House bill that would pay doctors for consulting with patients about end-of-life care. Palin says because of pressure to reduce health care spending, it's no wonder some might view those consultations as a way to minimize end-of-life care. But the president contends the provision is voluntary, and no one will force a senior to make choices based on cost.
Similarly, I lauded the New York Times for publishing a detailed account on the creation and dissemination of the "death panel" myth, but an online story published yesterday reverted to describing it in "he said," "she said" terms (the article was subsequently revised):
The Obama administration and its Congressional supporters also continued to deny that a health care plan would set up "death panels" to determine care for patients who are close to dying.
... Conservative opponents have accused the president of planning to set up panels that would decide which treatment an elderly or terminally ill patient might receive toward the end of life. But Ms. Sebelius, speaking on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," said that all the administration was thinking about was reimbursing doctors who would engage in bedside consultations with families whose relatives are near death and who are "conflicted about what to do next."
... Debating with [Senator Orrin Hatch], Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Democrat who switched from the Republican Party earlier this year, noted that Senator Hatch had sidestepped the question about "death panels."
"The fact of the matter is that it's a myth," he said. "It's simply not true. There are no death panels"...
What's incredible about this backsliding is that the "death panel" claim isn't simply misleading; it is unambiguously false, as more than forty outlets have already reported. If there were any factual dispute in which reporters could make an authoritative claim about truth, "death panels" should be it. Unfortunately, however, the tics of "objective" news reporting are hard to shake.