SONS OF FLUBBER: Someone has flubbed!


Epilogue—With respect to those 28 states: As you may have noticed, Mitt Romney’s flubs have been out of the news.

Reason? A culture war issue has boiled up concerning inclusion of contraception in health insurance plans. As a result, a press corps which loves the joy of the flub has been trying to nail down some facts.

The effort hasn’t been pretty. Essentially, facts no longer exist within our highly tribalized culture. If you doubt that, consider the ongoing attempt to explain the laws which exist in those 28 states.

Background: The Obama administration wants to require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide birth control/contraception in employees’ health plans. The Catholic bishops oppose this requirement. All week long, Americans liberals have heard a certain fact—a certain alleged fact, that is.

That fact concerns the state of the law in 28 states. This was Jay Carney, White House spokesman, speaking on Tuesday:
CARNEY (2/7/12): The president's commitment is ensuring that this health care coverage is provided to women. And I think there— One important point to make as we have this discussion is that 28 states already require insurance companies to provide contraceptive services. Eight states, as I noted in the past, provide no exemption, not even the exemption that the—the policy announced by Secretary Sebelius provides for churches and houses of worship.
According to Carney, “28 states already require insurance companies to provide contraceptive services.” Also according to Carney: In eight of those states, there isn’t even an exemption for Catholic churches, let alone for Catholic hospitals or for Catholic universities. Variants of this factual claim have been repeated all week long, especially by liberals. On Wednesday, Michelle Goldberg presented a version of the claim at the Daily Beast:
GOLDBERG (2/8/12): But many Catholic institutions are already operating in states that require contraceptive coverage, such as New York and California. Such laws are on the books in 28 states, and only eight of them exempt Catholic hospitals and universities. Nowhere has the Catholic Church shut down in response.
According to Goldberg, twenty states provide no exemption for Catholic hospitals and universities. On that evening’s Hardball, Goldberg debated this factual claim with Melinda Henneberger. Largely due to Chris Matthews’ complete incompetence, complete confusion reigned by the end of the segment.

Let’s be clear. On the merits, it doesn’t matter what state law says, or doesn’t say, in those 28 states. If you approve of the new federal proposal, it doesn’t matter what state legislatures have done in Colorado, New York or Georgia. But in recent years, we liberals have come to love the hypocrisy charge, in which we drop H-bombs on our opponents. In this week’s debate, our claim about the 28 states has been used to say that the bishops and the GOP are just faking—that they didn’t complain when those 28 states passed various laws of this type.

28 states already require this! The claim has been everywhere, sometimes in jumbled or contradictory form. This produced a factual conflict on MSNBC last night.

First up was Rachel Maddow, appearing at 9 PM Eastern. No one plays the hypocrisy card more frequently than Maddow does. Sometimes, her claims may even be accurate—although she rarely spots hypocrisy among those in her own tribe.

Last night, displaying her characteristic certitude, Maddow played the hypocrisy card with respect to those 28 states. To watch her full segment, click here:
MADDOW (2/9/12): Cat is out of the bag. Tons of Catholic universities already provide for health insurance that covers contraception, including a big majority of Catholic law schools. They are already doing this thing they are supposedly so outraged by.

If a Catholic university covering contraception in its health insurance plan was going to cause the end of the world the way Republicans are saying, since it’s already happening, we can conclude the end of the world is not so bad. At least after the world ends, we still have cable news.

In these 28 states, there’s already state law that requires employers, including in many cases employers associated with religious institutions, to provide health insurance that covers contraception. That is already the law of the land in these 28 states.

There was a reason you have not been deafened by the cries of outrage over the policy in these 28 states. It’s because nobody in the Republican Party decided that that sort of thing would be an outrage until now, until they could somehow try to use it against President Obama, even though they never cared about it before.

Actually, in eight of those 28 states that require health insurance to cover contraception, in these eight states, there’s not an exemption for churches. That’s true of all these godless places you see here, like Georgia and Iowa and Montana.

So in fact, the Obama administration’s proposed new rule on health insurance which says religious institutions like churches do not have to provide health insurance that covers contraception, those new rules from the Obama administration would actually give churches a new exemption from that law that they never had before.

In eight states, the Obama administration rule would carve out more space for churches to evade the rules that everybody else has to operate by on the basis of their religious beliefs.
Maddow was repeating a claim which had been widely voiced on her network. Her statement was a bit unclear in certain respects, but her gravamen was obvious. The Republicans are being hypocrites again! In either eight or 28 states, Catholic hospitals and universities are already required to do this!

Again: On the merits, this claim doesn’t matter. If Obama’s proposal makes sense on the merits, it doesn’t matter whether 28 states have already done something like it. But Maddow spoke with perfect certainty. And uh-oh:

One hour later, Lawrence O’Donnell appeared on the air and said this claim was inaccurate! To watch his whole presentation, click this. But here is part of O’Donnell’s finding about those 28 states:
O’DONNELL (2/9/12): Now you’ve heard many, many times in the last couple days that there are now 28 states that have passed laws similar to the regulation and the Obama health care law and that has—all of that has become so suddenly controversial. You’ve also been told, and I’ve been told repeatedly on television, that eight of those states have absolutely no exemptions to the law, none. No religious exemptions at all, no way out for Catholic churches, Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals. They’re stuck.

And I got to tell you, when I heard that, it just didn’t sound right to me. And whenever I hear people in Washington or New York telling me what’s happening out there in the states, in some state law, in a place where they’ve never been, I just don’t believe them. And you shouldn’t either.

And so in a Last Word exclusive investigation, we spent the day today studying the statutes in the eight states that everyone is saying provide absolutely no exemption. The other 20 states, everyone agrees, provide bigger, more comfortable exemptions for the Catholic Church, including Massachusetts, which has falsely been reported as being identical to the provision inserted in the federal law. In all of those other 20 state laws, there’s an exemption big enough for the White House to drive through.

Let’s look then at the Georgia law which you’ve been told, and I’ve been told repeatedly has absolutely no exemptions, and does have that astonishingly liberal-sounding prose introduction to it that I just read.

The Georgia law actually says, "This code section should not be construed to require coverage for prescription coverage benefits in any contract policy or plan that does not otherwise provide coverage for prescription drugs."

And there is the huge exemption to the Georgia law. You are exempt from it if your policy simply does not provide for prescription drugs. And so, all the religious institutions have to do in Georgia is to avoid the requirement to providing birth control pills is to just not provide any drug benefit in their policies, which is true of an awful lot of health insurance policies out there anyway.
O’Donnell went on to discuss the Colorado law. He said he spotted a rather large loophole in that state law too.

Is O’Donnell right about this? We’d have to say we don’t know. We do recommend the second paragraph quoted above, where he recommends skepticism about the things we're told by folk in DC and Gotham.

But is O’Donnell right about the laws in those 28 states? We’ll guess he is, but we can’t say we know. Therein lies our point.

As O’Donnell noted, liberals have been told about those 28 states all week long. The claim has been on wide display, voiced with perfect certitude.

Is this factual claim correct? In our highly tribalized political culture, there are no facts any more! Consider the latest attempt by the New York Times to deal with this widespread assertion.

Do 28 states have similar laws? The Times’ latest attempt to deal with this claim occurs this very morning. Laurie Goodstein does the honors in a top-of-the-front-page report:
GOODSTEIN (2/10/12): The ruling issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, said that only religious organizations that primarily employ and serve their co-religionists would be exempt from the requirement to provide insurance that covers birth control. Churches are therefore exempt, but Catholic hospitals, service agencies and colleges are not. The White House said that 28 states already had such mandates, so this federal rule, which is part of the health care overhaul, just applies the mandate uniformly.
The highlighted statement is technically accurate; the White House has said something like that. But is the White House statement accurate? Even today, the New York Times makes no attempt to say! Nor do they even let you know that this claim is in dispute.

A dispute does seem to exist. Last evening, on the NewsHour, Ray Suarez repeated a version of the claim about the 28 states. When he did, the general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told him he was wrong:
PICARELLO (2/9/12): Ray, I’m glad you asked that question because it’s coming up a lot. There are 28 states that have some kind of contraceptive mandate. None of them are as broad as the one that the federal government has imposed. For example, all but—the federal government mandate includes a mandate to provide sterilization. Only Vermont does that among those 28 states.

On top of that, most of those states have religious exemptions. And of those, all but three are broader than the one that HHS has chosen. So basically, there’s a lot more accommodation for religious exercise at the state level. And on top of that, states don’t even, you don’t even need to take advantage of the religious exemption in order to avoid it in other ways, for example, by self-insurance. Even in the restrictive states, many Catholic entities are able to avoid this by self-insurance.
Picarello seemed to say that Catholic hospitals and universities aren’t being required to include contraception by state laws. (O’Donnell also mentioned self-insurance in his fuller report.)

Is Picarello’s factual claim accurate? We don’t know—indeed, that’s our point. Within our highly tribalized culture, facts have virtually ceased to exist. In the case, one of the major political tribes has been making a factual claim all week long. But even as of this very morning, the New York Times makes no attempt to assess its accuracy. The Times doesn’t even report the fact that the claim is in dispute.

The Times report is technically accurate—and, at best, it’s useless.

Might we offer an overview? Here it is: The kinds of people who love playing flub don’t do real well with facts. Our “press corps” is good at playing with flubs. They also like to talk about dogs on the roofs of cars. (And about earth tones. And about how many people our big politicians have boffed.)

Mitt Romney’s great grandpa had multiple wives! They also enjoy limning that.

Unfortunately, people who like to gambol and play aren’t real good with facts.

Factual knowledge among the two tribes: On the merits, it doesn’t matter what those 28 states have done. If the Obama proposal is sound, it stands on its own merits.

But we liberals have been hearing a claim all week long. And it’s being advanced for a reason.

Might we offer a minor point? We liberals sometimes exult over surveys which purport to show that we know more facts than the other tribe. We are better informed, we say. Fox folk are factually clueless.

The worth of such surveys always depends on which facts are put on the test. If O’Donnell’s assessment is accurate, we liberals have been misled about some basic facts all week long.

Fox viewers have been spared. If O'Donnell's view is correct, will this one go on the test?


  1. Great column!

    Incidentally, recall that before Obamacare was passed, there was a debate over whether it would include "death panels." IMHO it's telling that only now has Obamacare's treatment of birth control finally been determined. Actually, it may not even be determined, since supposedly Obama is looking for a compromise. Many other key decisions lie in the future.

    To me, this illustrates that nobody really knew whether the ultimate structure of the law would include something like death panels, nor do we know today. Both sides in that debate were talking through their hats.

    1. Quaker in a BasementFebruary 10, 2012 at 8:10 PM

      nobody really knew whether the ultimate structure of the law would include something like death panels, nor do we know today

      Nonsense, David.

      You can slog through all 2,700 pages of the bill and you won't find a single, solitary "death panel." Those were imaginary, made up, fictional, bogus.

      As for Bob's observations today, I'll argue that the headline objections to the new rule claim that it represents an unprecedented government intrusion on religious freedom. I think it's fair game to question the validity of those objections.

    2. Right, that's why I said those who claimed there were death panels were talking through their hats. OTOH the Obamacare bill contains 700 references to the Secretary of HHS "shall," another 200 to the Secretary "may," and 139 to the Secretary "determines." So the Secretary may and shall determine pretty much anything she wants.

      To take an obvious example, you can slog through all 2,700 pages of the bill and you won't find a single, solitary requriement that Catholic organizations provide their employees with birth control and abortions. Nevertheless, thanks to an executive decision authorized by the bill, that's now a part of the law.

      Nobody can say for sure that one of these rules to be determined might call for something that would qualify as a "death panel." That's particularly the case, because the promise that the bill would save money was always bogus. Future leaders will have to take painful steps that will somehow limit coverage.

    3. I asked you what a "death panel" is, and if they already exist in my private insurance plan.

      The answer, of course is that if there is any such thing as a "death panel" we already have them in private free-market health insurance.

      As usual, David-in-CA, you're good for nothing except fear-mongering.

    4. Swan, I agree with you. One meaning of "death panel" is a panel that chooses
      restriction on coverage when they judge that the combination of high cost and low likelihood of significant benefit makes such coverage a poor use of funds. I agree that private health insurance companies have such restrictions, just as Obamacare will.

      I wish the Dems had answered the "Death Panel" charge along the lines of what Swan said: "Coverage restrictions are a part of any health insurance plans. In order to maintain health care at an affordable level, we will have to restrict coverage in cases where it doesn't make economic sense."

    5. David-in-CA, then, pointlessly fear-mongering the "death panels" issue: "nobody really knew whether [Obamacare] would include something like death panels."

      David-in-CA, caught out: "I agree that private health insurance companies have [death panels] just as Obamacare will."

      So, choose your David-in-CA, people:

      A) Government death panels? Nobody knows -- worry, worry about Obamacare rubes.

      B) OK, I admit it, everyone's free-market insurance already has profit-driven death panels so there's no point in my harping on it.

      And David-in-CA's coup-de-gras? It's all the Democrats' fault! They should have just said Yes, Obamacare will have death panels!

      You are a piece of work, sir. May hat is off to you. You have no shame at all.

  2. What is a "death panel" anyway, David? -- I want to know one when I see one!

    Who knows, maybe it's not just waiting in the ugly government-run future of healthcare -- Maybe I already have a "death panel" in my current employer-provided insurance?

  3. Whoever provides health insurance is going to allow some procedures and disallow others, and have a system for reviewing questionable claims. The phrase "death panels" is equally appropriate (or inappropriate) for a government or private group making those decisions.

  4. As is the commonly the case here at the Howler, the object of this post remains puzzling.

    Is politics a search for truth or a struggle for power? How reconcile the very human need for narrative simplicity, and the very limited time most people have to devote to political and policy questions?

    The literal truth in this case appears to be that the states may be less progressive (or less "secular") than first appears -- that, in fact, the states aren't as scrupulous on church/state separation as they should be in a constitutional democracy. On this basis, the Howler concludes that "our tribe" is just as ill-informed as the "other tribe".

    This conclusion is, quite frankly (apologies to Mr. Gingrich!), astounding. Here you have an American news and public affairs media which won't tell the truth about anything of importance -- not how the society is organized for the benefit of the very wealthy, not on the long U.S. history of supporting terrorism or actively conducting terrorism itself, not even that the "war against drugs" is in fact a class war against the minority poor.

    But skew your facts a little on those 28 states and, according to the Howler, you're no better than Fox! It doesn't matter, apparently, that the point is fundamentally sound: that Repubs do in fact argue for theocracy while "our tribe" would prefer to keep religion and superstition out of politics.

    So to keep the Howler happy, no lies about Al Gore and no inaccuracies on relatively minor matters (so what if you lose elections, year after year, by not playing the hardball the other side plays?), but for the rest of reality, go ahead, lie your head off, the Howler doesn't care!

    1. Anon: "I've got a nice straw man here, watch me knock it down!"

      I think Bob's point here is very simple: "Our Side" doesn't seem to know what it is talking about with the current rules regarding contraception coverage and religious organizations health care plans. When "Our Side" does poor reporting and dissembles, it just doesn't matter, but when "Their Side" does, pundits on MSNBC scream and yell "LIARS!!!" and "HYPOCRITES!!!" Also, if non-liberals/lefties find out that liberals are wrong with the facts, and don't know what they are talking about, why should they believe them about other issues?

      If O'Donnell's reporting is right, then most mainstream reports and liberal writers have been dissembling about what the current states rules are for contraception coverage in religious organizations' health care plans. If that doesn't matter to you, then I guess you deserve what you get.

    2. Ha! I guess someone who is not all that concerned with facts thinks they can say, in the middle of bemoaning the right's devious insistence on facts, that Republicans "do in fact argue for theocracy"
      Now, that's just a fact, isn't it?
      At least on the left it is, and that is the Howler's point.
      I love that "There is a bigger truth, here, and so we are allowed to lie" thing.

    3. @Anonymous Feb 11 2012 0759:

      Gingrich, Romney and Santorum all insist that God's law, as interpreted by them or their churches, is the source of the American legal system and human rights, and has primacy over humanly devised law; any number of Republicans further insist that this notion is enshrined in the Constitution itself.

      Such claims are, by definition, theocracy. It's not a matter of right or left.

    4. @Hardindr:

      "If that doesn't matter to you, then I guess you deserve what you get."

      It might be more accurate to say that anyone who watches TV to learn the truth about anything gets what he deserves. Expecting TV talking head celebrities who don't have a clue about how (for example) the American economy works or the nature of American foreign policy, to get right an issue of law like this one is worse than folly.

      Let's say it all at once: TV public affairs programming and news is unreliable, frequently biased, and generally incompetent and is sometimes downright dishonest. And that there's nothing we can do about it, unless we become controlling shareholders of the conglomerates which run these broadcasters; and that, overwhelmingly, the benefits go to whichever party supports corporate interests, although its also true that the networks will toady to whatever administration is in power.

      Happy now?

    5. Uhm, a lot of the misleading reporting came from print sources....

  5. The Howler has decided what he's going to attend to -- and he's clearly pretty good at it, as evidenced by the moans that always arise: "according to the Howler, [our side's] no better than Fox!"

    The answer you give seems to be: that's true, but why should we be?

    As far as your own suggestions go, the evidence that a failure to "skew the facts," a failure to make sh!t up, to lie, is what's been losing elections for Democrats is something yet to be demonstrated.

    There is, however, a mounting pile of evidence that simple failure to engage with reality is part of the problem...

  6. @Anonymous:

    Yeah, Bob is definitely picking nits here, but his overarching point is still valid: the media needs to be much better at reporting and not "novelizing" the news, and that extends to poor journalism that would appear to benefit a liberal agenda. Getting things right matters. You have to demand better from those who share your beliefs if you're going to demand better from everyone else.

    That said, I agree that drawing a parallel between this particular bit of misinformation that was repeated in the liberal media and what Fox news does daily is a false equivalence.

  7. You Howler defenders have it exactly right. While the Howler parses the corporate media parsing of the policies of 28 states -- a parsing of no interest to the voter -- the other side screeches, quite successfully, about Death Panels, which did prove to be of interest to the voter. Indeed, the other side is *still* screeching about Death Panels, as David in Cal's comments above indicate.

    As for truth, by no means examine the role of religion in American life today, and how the media covers it -- that couldn't possibly be the real issue. And if you're really serious about getting your facts right, by no means start with the fundamental ones. Instead, restrict your examination to what the two campaigns say about each other, or what the media says about the campaigns.

  8. I think his point is when there is clowning of this kind, progressives don't get the truth nor do they end up with power.

  9. Geez, Howler, don't you know that you may not deviate from the prescribed views of your tribe? The comments prove that rigid orthodoxy is required - no thinking, and no insistence on facts by BOTH sides, is allowed. How dare you!

    1. Which orthodoxy did you have in mind, bro?

      Is it the one which regards Clinton & Core as exemplars of progressive politics, despite their actual policies, and which insists that American elections aren't decided by the manipulation of white racist resentment?

      And which "tribe" did you have in mind? The one which denounces Obama as quickly as it did Bush (for the same sins against civil liberties and the same war crimes), or the one which is content to keep quiet, because O's a Democrat?

      You really need to define your terms.

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