Posted on 27 August 2012
By Mark Miller
An op-ed in today’s New York Times calls out my recent Reuters column on the Top Six Myths about Medicare. Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, argues that articles by journalists debunking myths “aren’t as straightforward as they seem,” and really are thinly-disguised political arguments.
Professor Cherlin’s broad point is that many journalists mis-use the concept of “myth” to advance their political views. I agree that stories busting myths, listing top tens or the bests and worsts of everything can be overdone sometimes. It’s a catchy way to draw attention and traffic in the era of internet news.
But, since Cherlin seems to think I used sleight of hand in the column, a brief response is in order.
Myth-busting authors provide unbiased information. The format can give the impression that the author is merely replacing mistaken beliefs with impartial, politically neutral information. But most writers use myth-busting as a way to argue one side of an issue. In “Top Six Myths About Medicare,” Mark Miller, a Reuters columnist, assembles mostly conservative complaints about Medicare and argues from a liberal perspective that each is false. And the same can be done from the opposing side.
There’s nothing wrong with making a political argument — that’s what commentators do. Myth-busting, however, encourages readers to think that the author is simply providing a public service. Call that the myth of myth-busting.
Anyone who follows my work on retirement knows I don’t make a secret of the progressive/liberal perspective I bring to topics like Medicare, Social Security or pensions. I’ll wear that label proudly — but it’s an interesting label nonetheless, since these programs are wildly popular across all lines of political party and ideology.
Moreover, these “mistaken beliefs” need to be pierced because opponents of Medicare and Social Security so often get away with fact-free arguments, unchallenged by reporters who cover them.
One of these phony arguments: we can save Medicare by making wealthy seniors pay more. It’s just a fact that there aren’t enough wealthy seniors out there to save Medicare’s finances. Also, wealthy seniors already pay signficantly more for Medicare through high-income premium surcharges. Likewise, when I point out that Obamacare doesn’t cut $700 billion in Medicare benefits, that is just a fact, not an opinion.
So, not all myth-busting arguments are equal. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan (and many others) have famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”