Thanks to the belly flop of the Affordable Care Act this month, we're getting a pretty good look at the priorities of the pundit class.
On the left, Salon's Joan Walsh ripped Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, two analysts open about their political leanings to the left, for conducting serious reporting on the failures of the Healthcare.gov web portal and deeper issues with the ACA, most commonly known as ObamaCare. This led to a big debate on the definition of journalists, activists, and pundits, and whether any of the three had a greater duty to truth or cause.
My colleague Matt Lewis made an excellent case for truth on Friday here at The Week. Normally, truth doesn't require this much of a defense, which gives us a reading of the times in which we live, but Matt defends it well. "People who are invested in something have an incentive to speak out when they see problems," he wrote, noting that while it would be easier in the short term for liberals to ignore contrary data and significant problems with Healthcare.gov, in the long run it damages both the cause and the credibility of those pushing it.
However interesting the discussion of the journalist/activist tension might be in terms of ethics and academics, it has less impact on readers when it involves pundits with reasonably transparent points of view. No one who reads or follows Ezra Klein or Greg Sargent at the Washington Post — and I read both — will mistake their positions for disinterested observers or objective reporters in the old J-school tradition. The same can be said for Matt and myself, and the entire pundit/activist class. The nature of punditry itself is activist; we want to pursue our political and social goals through argument and debate. That still requires intellectual honesty and recognition of reality, contra Walsh, as punditry's arguments rely in large part on our credibility to represent facts honestly while drawing our own conclusions from them. Still, no one who reads Ezra's excellent reporting on the back-end failures of Healthcare.gov will be under the impression that he now opposes the ACA and has suddenly become a free-market advocate. He wants the problems fixed to see his agenda succeed.
The real issue on this story isn't with the pundit class, but with the supposedly objective journalists who have been covering it for years. On Friday, the New York Times ran an enlightening look at the White House's attempts to blow sunshine into the faces of the media and Congress in the last few days before the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov. The White House, according to the report from Michael Shaer and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, spent those days "excitedly briefing" reporters about the readiness of the website and the benefits that the ACA would bring millions of Americans. This mirrored the messaging for the last several months from the White House that the system would be ready by its October 1 deadline, in response to repeated skepticism from Republicans that it would work at all, let alone on time.
However, the Times also noted that while all of this messaging from the Obama administration promised a huge success, it had become an "open secret" in the tech industry that Healthcare.gov would be a train wreck. The man whose company built the legendary online campaign for Barack Obama in 2008 declined to bid on the web-portal project, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars HHS eventually spent on it (the Times estimates it at $400 million and counting). Clay Johnson, who at the time was a Presidential Innovation Fellow, now says, "It was a project I wanted to steer clear of."
Shear and Stolberg also noted that the tech firms that did get involved in the project tried to warn HHS and the White House that they were heading into a disaster. "Senior department officials" at HHS "predicted serious trouble and advised delaying the rollout," they report.
CBS also reported on Thursday that the White House delayed key instructions for the development of the system during the summer of 2012 until after the election, which set the contractors back months in getting the code written. Between the 2010 passage of the ACA and August 31, 2012, HHS issued 109 regulations and guidances, but the flow mysteriously stopped between then and late November. No one bothered to notice this until after the collapse.
These are just a few examples of facts that might have been helpful to know earlier this year, or perhaps late last year before the election. Instead, the "open secret" of a disastrous rollout in the tech industry never got the attention of the media, nor did the political machinations or the fact that even the president's own Innovation Fellow wanted nothing to do with the project.
After all, this wasn't an obscure, tertiary bureaucratic effort; the ACA is the central mission of Obama's presidency, and it "fundamentally transformed" one-sixth of the American economy. Where were the objective journalists keeping track of its progress? Why didn't we hear about the rising skepticism within the industry on which Obama has now called for his "tech surge" rescue? Did none of these news reporters bother to develop leads within the industry and within CMS and HHS to inform people as to the real progress of the project?
The question of whether opinion journalists owe first allegiance to the truth or to the cause is an interesting and significant topic. In this case, the better debate might be whether news organizations have allowed themselves to be activists for ObamaCare over the last three years.