Why Liberal Journalists Should Quit Piling On HealthCare.gov

Bill Scher

Over at Salon.com, a debate flared up this week between Joan Walsh and Brian Beutler on how liberal opinion journalists should handle coverage of the Obamacare website’s initial rollout.

Walsh argued “yes, it’s important for Democrats to acknowledge when government screws up, and to fix it. On the other hand, when liberals rush conscientiously to do that, they only encourage the completely unbalanced and unhinged coverage of whatever the problem may be.”

Beutler responded, “Liberals are contributing to the ongoing public relations fiasco, but that’s a good thing for the law. If the only people making noise about Healthcare.gov were its avowed enemies, decision makers in the administration would be much more likely to create false bases for denying the extent of the challenges. If Ezra Klein and Ryan Lizza say Healthcare.gov is a giant mess and the stakes for fixing it enormous, they’re likelier to listen, and respond as best they can … if it doesn’t work right the recriminations will be thousands of times worse — for Obama, Democrats, liberalism and the uninsured — than they have been so far.”

I agree with Beutler in small part.

Yes, the Affordable Care Act will be perceived — rightly or wrongly — as a case study for liberalism. Therefore, it’s important for liberals to help implement it effectively and ferret out problems, not ignore them.

But here’s where I disagree strongly.

Stoking panic (aka “making noise”) does not make the Administration “likelier to listen.” The problems with the website were evident and would have to be addressed without Klein’s Washington Post Wonkblog and related Twitter feeds adopting a “flood the zone” approach to its coverage, with nuanced coverage thrown together with a slew of overheated micro-stories devoid of context.

Case in point:

Yesterday a Wonkblog post ran under the headline “‘No, you cannot do that’: Trying to buy Obamacare over the phone.” The initial story involved the reporter trying multiple times to use the phone instead of the website to enroll, yet got conflicting information from customer service representatives. One said “you cannot” completely finish the process over the phone, but only could do some of the steps. Another said you will be eventually be able to complete the whole process soon. After the initial Wonkblog post, an update was tacked on with a statement from the Health and Human Services Department, clarifying that “consumers can apply for and enroll in a health insurance plan over the phone from beginning to end. [But] when the application is unable to be processed online, call center representatives will help to fill out an application and the consumer will be contacted at a later time to move forward with shopping and enrolling in a plan.”

And yet, the misleading headline remains. Worse, after the update was published, Klein tweeted a link to the story with the headline alone.

Liberal opinion journalists providing context is just as critical to the sustainability of liberalism and public-sector workers delivering effective government.

Because while we surely need government programs to work, we also need reporters who don’t judge government workers by unfair standards and set unrealistic expectations.

As I recently detailed, government program launches often go awry. So do private sector launches. As Tech President’s Merici Vinton notes, “the success rate of IT projects over $10 million [is] 10% while the chance of them failing or being cancelled is 38%.” (Also see my colleague Isaiah J. Poole’s post on the recent college Common Application web glitches.)

Both government and business are run by humans. Honest mistakes happen, especially when tackling a project that’s never been done before. Social Security was a similarly ambitous and unprecedented endeavor. Mistakes happened along the way. Administrators were given the space to fix them. And our government became smarter in the process.

Thankfully, the Obama administration understood this and didn’t try to set the whole thing up in year. You might recall some liberals used to criticize Obama for not insisting on a launch before Election Day 2012, so the benefits would be evident to all and less susceptible to repeal. But big new endeavors take time. As rocky as this is, a rush job would have been much worse.

Plus, we still have a six month enrollment period to allow for fixes to be made. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn notes that most enrollment usually happens closer to the deadline, not at the start of the enrollment period, giving programmers some breathing room. Yet if that proves to be not enough time, there is enough flexibility in the law to relax the individual mandate for those who are unable to get insurance and give federal workers more time to debug.

If that’s what happens, it shouldn’t be treated as some massive political failure (as many in the media are already trying to deem any such delay), but just part of the reality of trying to do something new. It beats the alternative of doing nothing, shirking responsibility and letting crises continue to fester.

Of course, it is possible that rank incompetence is involved somewhere down the line, and if so, we need both the media and government auditors to look for it. But that is very hard to judge from the outside in the middle of the process. One of the more nuanced analytic posts on Wonkblog doesn’t try to parcel out specific blame, noting that different people are casting blame in different places. It also notes: “It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint the exact problems as an outsider, because much of HealthCare.gov’s code is closed, meaning that the general public cannot get a look at it.”

A Mother Jones story based on interviews with tech experts also reminds that there is a danger in relying too much on the knee-jerk opinions of outsiders. While “Clay Shirky, tech’s favorite pop-intellectual” slammed the White House saying “If Team Obama had cared a tenth as much about healthcare.gov” as its campaign website, “it would have worked.” However, “Obama’s tech alums say that Healthcare.gov is a vastly bigger project than anything the re-election effort had to tackle.”

Another Wonkblog post warns that assuming the current team is a bunch of incompetents and dumping in a bunch of outsiders — who haven’t previously dealt with the code — could easily make fixing the site take much longer: “existing programmers will need to spend time training the new programmers, assigning them tasks, and coordinating their efforts with the new, larger development team.”

Sometimes panic doesn’t help.

Yet 10 days ago, Klein sought to take the coverage into five-alarm scandal mode, writing, “is anybody going to be held accountable? Is anybody going to be fired? Will anyone new be brought in to run the cleanup effort? Does the Obama administration know what went wrong, and are therr [sic] real plans to find out? What’s abundantly clear to anyone who reported on the run-up to the federal health-care law’s launch is that the White House had no idea how badly the Web site would perform. They expected problems. But the full extent of the disaster was either obscured or ignored. Heads should roll for that.”

Not necessarily, and frankly, not the priority right now. The priority is fixing the site, and there isn’t much reason to presume that it can’t be done with the current team.

If liberalism is going to persevere, if more active government is in our future, there will have to be a degree of acceptance that it will never be perfect, because nothing in life is. A functioning liberal government faces up to social problems, does its level best, learns from mistakes and never stops trying to reform. But it’s never going to be infallible.

Problems can and should be flagged, and we need independent journalists to do that. But hysteria and scalp-hunting is not always required.

It’s in our human nature to want everything to be perfect, as well as want it right now and not cost anything. In turn, reporters are intrinsically quick to pounce on any problems and start the pile-on until some head rolls.

We don’t need liberal opinion journalists to join the pile-on. We need them to provide the context others won’t.

Thankfully, if you notice in some of the links above, there are a good deal of liberal opinion journalists who are doing just that.

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