Between the birthers who promote the myth that the President was not born in this country and opponents of health care reform who falsely claim the legislation would promote euthanasia, there is a lot of misinformation floating around about the Obama administration. That shouldn't be surprising, though; Obama's honeymoon is ending.
What is striking is the extent to which birthers, led by Orley Taitz, and the health care misinformers, led by Betsy McCaughey, are working from a similar playbook. Here's an outline of how the process works:
1. Take a complicated issue that people don't understand (e.g. presidential citizenship reqirements and Hawaiian birth records or the complex health care reform bills pending in Congress).
2. Advance a disturbing hypothesis about the issue that will appeal to your side of the aisle (e.g. Obama isn't a legitimate president; the health bill will take away your freedom).
3. Misconstrue available evidence to construct arguments supporting your point.
4. Promote these myths widely. If you are successful enough in doing so, the media will feel obligated to report on them. Coverage will then frequently be presented in an artificially balanced "he said," "she said" format, giving further credence to your claims.
5. When your arguments are debunked, claim that the media is trying to silence you to prevent the truth from being revealed.
6. Repeat steps 3-5 until various elites (e.g. John Boehner on health, Lou Dobbs on Obama's birth certificate) start claiming you have raised legitimate questions about the issue of interest.
It's been reasonably well-documented how Taitz and her allies have followed this process in promoting the birth certificate myth, but I'm not sure if most people understand the extent to which McCaughey -- a more mainstream figure -- has used an almost identical approach to promote several falsehoods about health care reform.
Following the model of her infamous 1994 New Republic article on the Clinton health care plan, McCaughey has cycled through steps 3-5 above three times this year. First, Bloomberg published a commentary in which she falsely claimed in February to have discovered a provision in the stimulus bill that would lead to government control of medical treatments. Then, in June, she falsely claimed on CNBC that "the Democratic legislation pushes Americans into low-budget plans" and was given space to make similar claims by the New York Daily News and the Wall Street Journal. Now she's been spending the last few weeks promoting the false claim that the health care legislation in Congress would promote euthanasia, which was again featured in the Wall Street Journal and on former Sen. Fred Thompson's radio show.
Each of these myths was widely disseminated in the news media, but the euthanasia claim has received the most enthusiastic response from sympathetic elites. It's already been parroted by the RNC and various pundits as well as Republican members of Congress like Rep. Virginia Foxx, who suggested on the House floor that the Democratic plan would "put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government." As a result, it is now circulating widely at the grassroots level.
Who's to blame for this problem? I largely fault the media. While the Obama administration's message strategy has hardly been perfect, it's absurd to say, as Cynthia Tucker did on This Week, that Obama "allowed the opposition [to health care reform] to scare people" (my emphasis). In a polarized political system, the McCaughey/Taitz approach to concocting and promoting misinformation probably would have worked no matter what the White House did. As Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias recently argued, it's extremely difficult to myth-proof a bill or to effectively counter these claims once they are made. Until the media stops giving airtime and column inches to proponents of misinformation, the playbook is going to keep working.