The Times does better with hair: We often complain about the way the New York Times fills its front page with silly-bill stories—with a front-page report about Mitt Romney’s hair; with a front-page report about GOP candidate friendship patterns.
Last Friday, the Times ran a major front-page report about a policy area. In part, this report made us long for more work on the candidates’ hair.
“Finally!” the analysts said, when they glanced at Friday’s Times. Right at the top of the paper’s front page, the Times was doing a serious, policy-based news report! Jim Rutenberg had written the piece. These were the headlines which sat atop our hard-copy Times:
Gingrich Push on Health Care Appears at Odds With G.O.P.Wow! Gingrich supported the stimulus plan? It sounded like quite a story! Granted, we were a bit confused, since the stimulus plan didn’t concern health care all that much.
Support for Stimulus Plan, Now Disavowed
Eagerly, though, we started to read—and we found ourselves chumped again! Believe it or not, this is the way Jim Rutenberg’s news report started:
RUTENBERG (12/16/11): Shortly before the passage of President Obama’s stimulus bill in 2009, Newt Gingrich’s political committee put out a video of Mr. Gingrich denouncing it as a “big politician, big bureaucracy, pork-laden bill.”Really? That’s the conflict? Gingrich opposed the overall stimulus plan, but he supported one provision—a provision which accounted for roughly two percent of the program’s overall cost? That was the biggest hook they had, for a major front-page report?
"It should be stopped,” he said.
But at the same time, Mr. Gingrich was cheering a $19 billion part of the package that promoted the use of electronic health records, something that benefited clients of his consulting business. “I am delighted that President Obama has picked this as a key part of the stimulus package,” he told health care executives in a January 2009 conference call.
After the bill was passed a month later, Mr. Gingrich's consultancy, the Center for Health Transformation, joined two of its clients, Allscripts and Microsoft, in an ''Electronic Health Records Stimulus Tour'' that traveled the country, encouraging doctors and hospitals to buy their products with the billions in new federal subsidies. ''Get Engaged, Get Incentives,'' one promotion read.
If you read all the way to the end of this lengthy report, you may get the impression that Gingrich has now disavowed his support for those electronic records. At least, we’ll guess that that is what the headline-writer thought he had read. For ourselves, we can’t really tell if that's what Rutenberg is claiming—although he clearly says that Gingrich has flipped on comparative effectiveness research. At any rate, those headlines, at best, should have said the following:
Gingrich Push on Health Care Appears at Odds With Some Unstated Number of People in the G.O.P.The headline writer seems to have jacked up the tale—a tale which is told rather poorly.
Support for Very Small Part of Stimulus Plan, Now Perhaps Disavowed Although We Can't Quite Tell
Go ahead—read the report. In our view, Rutenberg jumbles a lot of topics together, creating a confusing stew. What exactly are his claims? In this early passage, we will insert the numbers:
RUTENBERG: As Mr. Gingrich runs for president, he is working to appeal to Republican primary voters suspicious of big-government activism, especially in the realm of health care. But interviews and a review of records show how active Mr. Gingrich has been in promoting a series of recent programs that have given the government a bigger hand in the delivery of health care, and at the same time benefited his clients.Rutenberg makes the folllowing claims. We think they’re all rather murky:
During the Bush administration,  he was a leading Republican advocate for the costly expansion of Medicare, which many in his party now regret. And  he and his center pushed some policies that are reflected in Mr. Obama's health care record—a record Mr. Gingrich regularly criticizes on the campaign trail. All the while, his center functioned as a sort of high-priced club where companies joined him in working the corridors of power in Washington and in state capitals.
Mr. Gingrich's chief Republican rival, Mitt Romney, has found himself on the defensive among conservatives for signing a universal health care law when he was governor of Massachusetts. But  Mr. Gingrich has his own history with health care policy, part of which puts him at odds with many Republican voters.
First claim: Gingrich was an advocate for Bush’s prescription drug plan—a plan “many” Republicans now regret! But "many" is a slippery term. Rutenberg makes no attempt to explain how many Republicans this entails, or how much they regret this.
Second claim: Gingrich and his Center for Health Transformation pushed some policies “that are reflected in Mr. Obama's health care record.” (We think that claim was written in English.) Again, it should hardly be surprising if Gingrich supports some of Obama’s policies. But hold on, it only gets worse:
Third claim: Part of Gingrich’s history with health care policy puts him at odds with many Republican voters. “Many” is still a slippery term. And once again, should we be surprised if some Republican voters disagree with "part" of Gingrich's history?
Rutenberg covers several topics which may be quite significant. But good grief! He covers Gingrich’s past support for an individual mandate to buy health insurance in exactly one paragraph. He says that Gingrich has reversed his support for comparative effective research—but this comes at the end of a rather long article, and it’s rather poorly explored. In the middle of his report, he devotes a great deal of time to the way Gingrich’s health center “worked to shape government policies toward” diabetes in the middle part of the past decade. It’s hard to see what the point of this is, except it gives Rutenberg a chance to suggest that Gingrich was simply following the money in his pursuit of these policies.
This report would have been much better if Rutenberg stuck to a few major topics. But on the rare occasions when the Times decides to talk about policy matters, the great newspaper tends to throw all its ingredients into one large stew.
Sometimes the New York Times tries to do policy. In our view, the paper works better with hair.