Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Persistent Misperceptions:
The Death Panels

When you mess with people's health care, there's always going to be trouble.  And misperceptions.  Take, for example, the death panel myth, the notion pushed by Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, and others that death panels would decide the fate of older folks if the Obama health care proposal made it through Congress.  A new paper published in The Forum gets at this health care myth.

There is an excellent Table 1 on page 9 that attempts to trace the history of the death panel myth.

If you don't want to follow the link, it begins with Betsy McCaughey on Fred Thompson's radio show (is there a Republican without a show?) on July 16, 2009, followed by a column by McCaughey in The New York Post a day later.  Sean Hannity picks up on it that same day, as does Laura Ingraham on her radio show.  Limbaugh arrives a few days later, and so on, including our future Speaker of the House on July 23 in a press release.  Palin is often credited for the myth, you betcha, but she doesn't repeat the myth until the following month, as does U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (my own congressional representative, and a bit of a fruitcake).  But Palin really ran with this one, despite two fact-checking web sites that point out she was wrong.  Never let pesky facts get in the way of a good narrative, I always say.

But there is no excuse for outright lying in an important debate, at least not in a perfect political world.  Or, as the paper's author argues:

As a result, until the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.

Recent research, for example, found that even when a news organization corrects a misperception, the result is to push some folks, based on their partisan predispositions, even further in the wrong direction and acceptance of an outright myth.  In other words, fixing it doesn't work, so partisans and journalists alike need to keep debate to the facts, not the myths.  And yeah, that's not gonna happen, especially from partisans who have air time to fill and are more than accepting of a certain moral flexibility when it comes to facts.

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