During the very long debate over the Affordable Care Act, proponents of the law argued that one benefit would be that some workers who stayed at their jobs only in order to retain their health insurance would reduce their hours or leave the workforce altogether. But when a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (2/4/14) confirmed that this is still likely to happen, some in the media botched the story by portraying the news as a triumph for Republican spin.
The main Republican talking point was that the CBO confirmed that Obamacare is a job-killer. But that's not at all what the CBO report is saying; their findings were that work hours would be reduced–more than had been originally forecast–and that this would "almost entirely" happen because workers were choosing to work less–not that employers were cutting jobs, which is clearly the Republican implication.
And the media are helping advance this "job-killing" falsehood. Some reports mischaracterized the reduction in hours as jobs lost. Here's the New York Times correction (2/5/14):
And here's the Washington Post (2/5/14), correcting the very same error:
More than that, many in the corporate media treated the dishonest spin as if it were devastating political rhetoric. That New York Times story said the CBO's findings were "providing Republican opponents fresh lines of attack and putting Democrats on the defensive"–though the paper added a paragraph later that the report was "was far more complicated than the Republican attack lines it generated."
An Associated Press story (2/4/14) offered a kind of "balance" by reporting that "Republican lawmakers seized on the report as major new evidence of what they consider the failures of Obama's overhaul." That was countered by this: "But the White House said the possible reduction would be due to voluntary steps by workers rather than businesses cutting jobs." The latter is not a White House claim, though; it's explicitly what the CBO report says.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (2/5/14) wrote that "it was immediately clear that the government's green eyeshades had bestowed a big gift on the law's Republican critics." His proof was that the Republican/Fox News reaction to the news was to gloat that they had been right all along. He added that "Obamacare has been undermined by the very entity they had used to validate it."
The clear message was that Democrats had mostly lost–the AP included a line noting that the report "wasn't all bad news for the Obama administration," which is exactly how the New York Times framed it too: "The news in the report is not all bad for Democrats."
Indeed, the reaction of many in the press corps was summed up by this tweet from New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes:
Tho much reporting & GOP response to new CBO report on ACA is inaccurate/false, problem for Dems: If you're explainin', you're losin'
— Jackie Calmes (@calmesnyt) February 4, 2014
Calmes was singled out for criticism, since the implication would seem to be obvious: Sure, Republicans might be lying, but that doesn't matter because the Democrats are losing this argument. She took issue with the critics, explaining that she was "only stating a political fact of life."
But that's exactly the point critics are trying to make of this kind of political coverage (and there was plenty more of it–see TPM DC, 2/4/14). The idea that the politicians who come up with the most effective-yet-dishonest talking points about a complex issue are the "winners" is a media problem. In a more rational universe, journalists would see calling out dishonest political leaders as part of their job.