The morning after a nonpartisan analysts reported that the Republican replacement for Obamacare would cause 23 million people to lose their health insurance — many of them in the reddest states — Fox & Friends invited President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, onto the show.
The exchange went like this:
BRIAN KILMEADE (host): 23 million will lose insurance. True or false?
MULVANEY: False. If you look at the methodology, they assume that folks who were on Medicaid, which is free, will choose to get off Medicaid when the mandate goes away. Now you tell me if this sounds like the real world.
STEVE DOOCY (host): Sure. And I know the [Congressional Budget Office] looked at it. Millions of Americans are not going to buy insurance if they don’t have to because they don’t want to.
It was one of the rare instances Fox & Friends mentioned the “23 million” number, but a quintessential example of how the Fox News Channel has often covered the devastating CBO analysis — by obscuring details and blaming the source, which is similar to how right-wing news sites cover this administration.
Mulvaney does both, saying CBO erred in saying people would voluntarily leave Medicaid. He (and the hosts) fails to mention that the bill kicks low-income adults without children off Medicaid and makes it easier for states to kick people off the program.
It’s part of a pattern on Fox News, which often framed the CBO score in two ways. The first was that the CBO analysis is wrong, or that CBO has been unreliable in the past. The second is that Obamacare is failing and this bill gives people the freedom to escape that failure.
Here’s what the two and a half months of coverage between the first CBO score and the second score looked like:
Not thinking too hard about the human cost
As my colleague Jeff Stein writes, this bill is a bigger liability for Republicans than Trump’s scandals. It’s what Democrats are campaigning on and what seems to have the most resonance, perhaps because people don’t want to be in the traumatic situation of having to choose between financial ruin and medical treatment.
Many of those who stand to lose insurance live in states that voted heavily for Trump. The bill hurts a host of demographic groups that support Trump — including older Americans, those who live in more rural areas, and areas suffering most from the opioid crisis.
The CBO scores get at the heart of these fears.
So the injection of these numbers into the AHCA debate caused a dissonance on several Fox News shows. When Fox & Friends had to confront these numbers, the reaction was to minimize the CBO analysis. For example, in March, after the first CBO report, Kilmeade acknowledged that Trump voters would be hurt but assured them this was part of a larger plan:
They say the people that are going to be hurt most under the current plan, the way the calculus is done by the CBO, are Americans between the age of 50 and 64. Right before Medicare, the older part and last leg of their career. That translates into mostly Trump voters.
But then you factor in the fact that this is a three-phase plan. The second phase is when [Health and Human Services Secretary] Tom Price is supposed to theoretically sit there and put in regulations that’ll make this more of a conservative project.
Host Ainsley Earhardt questioned the CBO, saying:
Here’s the thing. Donald Trump says the Democrats are the ones that put us in this mess. They are complaining about this.
Can you really trust the CBO? Can you trust the report?
Jonathan Gruber, the architect of Obamacare, he said blatantly — we played the sound bites for you yesterday — he said we can trick the CBO, call them mandates and not taxes, and they will pass this thing through.
Then on May 4, the House prepared to vote on the second version of the AHCA without a CBO score showing the policy’s impact. That morning, Doocy confronted the “24 million” number by saying it’s better because it “reduces taxes and stuff like that”:
When you saw that figure a month or two ago, where something like 24 million would wind up losing their health care: That is a great political ad for the Democrats, whoever is going to run against any of the Republicans coming up in 2018.
But here’s the thing: What if it’s — the hope for everybody is this is actually better. Reduces taxes and stuff like that.
And ultimately, when it comes to politics, this is going to redeem Speaker Paul Ryan. Plus, it’s going to give President Trump his first big — and it is big — legislative win.
I’m largely focusing on Fox & Friends because it has one very important viewer — President Trump — who has praised the show multiple times, and even thanked them for helping him win the presidency. It is the inner monologue of a president who has aggressively criticized most other media outlets for their reporting of his presidency.
Some shows on the network were slightly more nuanced, saying that people will choose to be uninsured because Obamacare will no longer mandate people to have insurance.
There was little talk of why the mandate existed in the first place, and the mechanism the AHCA uses in its place: a penalty for people who want to buy insurance on the marketplace after a lapse in coverage.
Painting the CBO — and subsequently the media — as biased
Occasionally a guest would be on a Fox News show to represent the opposing viewpoint, and they would defend the 24 million number, though almost immediately a conservative guest or the host would reframe the discussion around CBO’s credibility or Obamacare’s failure. But it was this inherent conflict — between left and right, between “them” and “us” — that framed the coverage around the CBO report.
After watching the nearly 100 times people on Fox News confronted these numbers, the CBO report stopped feeling like a number describing humans. Rather, it felt like a political concoction — a number whipped up to make Obamacare repeal harder.
In fact, media outlets and experts who cited the CBO score were also treated with contempt. Below is a screenshot of a segment on how unfairly the mainstream media is treating the AHCA after the CBO score:
It’s cruel to disorient people like this
American health care is complicated. This AHCA debate is complicated. Yet it’s these complicated details that determine the cost and quality of care for our bodies.
So when nonpartisan analysts say that a bill will cause 23 million to lose insurance in 10 years and make costs skyrocket for older and poorer Americans, it should clarify our political opinions.
But Fox News has taken advantage of television as a medium to try to convince its viewers that “23 million” is a partisan tool, not an evidence-based projection. It’s basing its rhetoric on personality, on partisanship, on tribalism, and insisting that people trust them, not the mainstream media or the nonpartisan analysts who are desperate to take down Donald Trump.
Let’s put it this way: When our satellites tell us a powerful hurricane is headed toward us, it’s irresponsible not to tell everyone to get out of the way. But convincing the people that the tools are malfunctioning, that the hurricane isn’t coming their way, that the rest of the news reports are wrong? That’s cruel.