Nearly seven years ago, in July 2009, conservative researcher Betsy McCaughey appeared on Fred Thompson’s radio show and suggested that President Obama’s healthcare bill would encourage seniors “to do what’s in society’s best interest or your family’s best interest, and cut your life short.”
A few weeks later in early August, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.”
Thus, the “death panels” lie was born, and seven years later it still remains potent. According to a new poll from Public Policy Polling, 60% of Americans—including 74% of Republicans and even 51% of Democrats—still either believe in or are unsure about the existence of death panels.
Why are so many Americans still clinging to 2009’s “Lie of the Year?” Tens of millions of people are receiving health care thanks to the Affordable Care Act, with no evidence of seniors or disabled citizens being forced to end their lives early due to a panel of government bureaucrats.
I commisioned this poll to clarify a key point in my new book, "Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics." Discussions about corruption of our political processes often center around money and lobbying. Yet a third element, lies, specifically those lies that are strategically designed to distort the policy-making process, are ignored. There is in fact a group of individuals who have intentionally used falsehoods to hack our democracy for both financial and ideological gain, thus the title. In "Lies, Incorporated," I chronicle a series of these lies, profile the people who created them, and assess the damage they have caused.
I could never have imagined a figure like Donald Trump would emerge a leader in the primary, even though I was familiar with his type. Like Trump in 2016, Betsy McCaughey in 2009 combined brazen falsehoods with a shamelessness that meant she never has to apologize for them.
Betsy McCaughey also shared Trump’s thirst for the spotlight. A former staffer from her time as lieutenant governor of New York said, “A lot of politicians are out for the limelight, but Betsy’s constant need twenty-four hours a day was something I’d never seen.”
Although a mini fact-checking industry immediately sprang up to correct the record on death panels, the story—like many of Trump’s claims today—proved stubborn. Even before Sarah Palin coined the term “death panels,” Politifact already declared the theory a “ridiculous falsehood” rating it “pants on fire.” And McCaughey’s death-panel lie was debunked within days by groups as diverse as the AARP and Media Matters for America, as well as by more than 40 major media outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, Associated Press, The Washington Post, CBS, and MSNBC.
In The Washington Post, Ezra Klein explained why Betsy McCaughey’s lie caught fire in the media, a reason extremely familiar to those of us watching Trump in 2016: “She's among the best in the business at the Big Lie: not the dull claim that health-care reform will slightly increase the deficit or trim Medicare Advantage benefits, but the claim that it will result in Death Panels that decide the fate of the elderly, or a new model of medical ethics in which the lives of the old are sacrificed for the good of the young, or a government agency that will review the actions of every doctor,” Klein wrote. “McCaughey isn't just a liar. She's an exciting liar.”
Being an exciting liar led to media attention and numerous bookings not only with the conservative media, but also with ostensibly liberal venues like "The Daily Show." It forced progressive organizations and news outlets like MSNBC to devote countless segments to debunking her falsehoods. Yet this seemed to instead perpetuate the lie, keeping it active.
A further similarity between Trump and McCaughey is that she was already known as someone who played fast and loose with the truth about a Democratic president’s healthcare policies.
In 1994 as a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, McCaughey excoriated the Clinton White House health care proposal in an article in The New Republic titled “No Exit.”
Newt Gingrich said McCaughey’s New Republic piece was “the first decisive break point” that led to the defeat of what conservatives derided as “Hillarycare.”
“If these facts surprise you, it’s because you haven’t been given a straight story about the Clinton health bill,” she wrote. But it was McCaughey who wasn’t telling it straight.
James Fallows of The Atlantic later declared that New Republic piece the “most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person” in the 1990s.
Despite this performance, the following decade saw Betsy McCaughey welcomed back into the media fold to continue spreading her lies, now about Obamacare. Her quotable and stirring attacks made her a welcome guest. Republicans loved her talking points, which confirmed their worst fears about President Obama’s true intent, and Democrats loved to hate her because she was one of many conservative boogeymen who could easily be attacked for their outrageous lies.
As we’re seeing now with the Trump campaign, 2009’s part media frenzy, part goat rodeo was compelling content for liberals and conservatives alike. But it was not beneficial to our public discourse.
As I note in "Lies, Incorporated," instead of discussing how to help the millions of uninsured or debating the merits or feasibility of proposed solutions, endless months were devoted to an irrelevant debate over whether President Barack Obama secretly wanted to kill grandmothers. Members of Congress were begging the White House for a response—their constituents were calling in droves, fearful of death panels. Whether they were enticed by the ratings potential of this manufactured drama or they were simply unwilling to truthfully confront the issue, mainstream reporters who lacked any understanding of healthcare policy flooded the White House and pro-healthcare-policy groups with questions.
Today, instead of discussing the actual problems with U.S. immigration policy, Donald Trump shifts debate to whether or not Mexicans who wish to enter the U.S. are rapists, how tall his wall is going to be, and whether the federal government should ban all Muslim immigrants.
By loudly and unapologetically lying to a friendly audience of partisans in the media, at think tanks, on Capitol Hill, and to the public at large, Donald Trump has created bedlam within the Republican party—the same way that Betsy McCaughey successfully threw health care reform into chaos.
The death panel lie helped to rile up the conservative base in such a way that it became impossible for Democrats and Republicans to reach any sort of compromise on health care reform. It confirmed for conservatives their worst fears about Barack Obama and what his presidency would mean for their lives, leaving no space for a public discussion on how to fix America’s health care system.
The post-truth landscape that Trump, McCaughey and others take advantage of is fueled by a bifurcated media structure, which allows misinformation to rapidly spread in ideological echo chambers. Because it is simply impossible for individuals to track down the primary source for every piece of information they consume, we by necessity rely on aggregators to report the news to us. No longer limited to anchors on the big three networks to tell us what we need to know, we flock to the outlets that best conform to our own worldview.
Thus the lies of Donald Trump and the lies of Betsy McCaughey become truth in different communities. This means that even after the existence of “death panels” had been thoroughly debunked it may never fully leave the public consciousness. Zombie lies continue to rise from the dead again and again, influencing political debate and swaying people’s opinions on a variety of issues—particularly emotionally resonate lies like the “death panels.”
The lesson of Donald Trump’s campaign is, if you are going to lie, lie big, lie often, and never acknowledge your lies. Repeat them enough and certain segments of the population will accept them in such a way that they will stick.
The lesson for the rest of us (and the media) is we cannot give these liars their undeserved public platforms. It is too late to undo the damage of Donald Trump’s lies, just as there will always be a segment of the people who believe in death panels.
After her lies about health care reform in the 1990s, Betsy McCaughey should not have been granted any platform to participate in the debate during the Obama years. Likewise once Donald Trump began his quest to discover Barack Obama’s true birthplace, he should have been laughed out of public discourse, relegated to his reality show boardroom. Yes, both McCaughey and Trump were ratings boons for television news seeking an audience, but that came at a cost to our public discourse.