David Cay Johnston on seriously flawed reporting on ‘ObamaCare’


Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

[T]he headline atop the front page of The New York Times Monday morning: “Talk of Penalty is Missing in Ads for Health Care.” I damn near spit out my coffee when I saw that mosleading headline — from a Times reporter no less.

Tax expert David Cay Johnston at the National Memo had the same reaction. Obamacare Penalized By Flawed Reporting In The New York Times:

News flash – there is no penalty for failing to get health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Reporter Anemona Hartocollis built an entire piece around a faulty premise, stated clearly in her third sentence.  Times editors embraced her flawed reporting with the gusto of prominent placement, giving unwarranted credibility to what is, to be polite, a pile of misinformation.

Had Hartocollis read the law – or had any of the dozen or so Times editors who review every Page One story done so – they would not have published such nonsense anywhere in the paper.

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Had anyone at the Times read the law, they would know that is bunk. Here is what the law says, with statutory numbering removed:

WAIVER OF CRIMINAL PENALTIES. – In the case of any failure by a taxpayer to timely pay any penalty imposed by the section, such taxpayer shall not be subject to any criminal prosecution or penalties with respect to such failure.

LIMITATIONS ON LIENS AND LEVIES. – The Secretary [read IRS] shall not – file notice of lien with respect to any property of a taxpayer by reason of any failure to pay the penalty imposed by this section, or levy on any such property with respect to such failure.

There is a simple way for the world’s most authoritative newspaper to stop embarrassing itself this way – require reporters to actually read the laws they write about, a policy I suggested when I was a reporter there, obviously to no avail.

You can read the law yourself by going to the Government Printing Office website.

To read the quoted language just jump down to page 249 of the PDF, which is part of Chapter 48, titled “Maintenance of Minimum Essential Coverage.”  That chapter begins at page 244 of the PDF.

[A]fter the jump from Page One to Page A14 – studies show about 85 percent of readers stop at the jump – Hartocollis offers a line that should have had editors questioning the premise of the piece. She wrote:

But there is also the dirty little secret of the penalty: It is a bit of a chimera, because the federal government cannot use its usual tools like fines, liens or criminal prosecutions to punish people who do not pay it. The penalty is supposed to be reported and paid with the income tax returns of those who do not buy insurance, but the government has not said how it will collect from those who owe it but do not pay it, though the law allows it to deduct from any income tax refunds.

That phrase “has not said” should have prompted a lot of questions from editors. Evidently not.

Another former Times reporter has a smart line about such flawed stories. Seymour Hersh once told me that on the front page of the Times, “you can read the greatest journalism human beings have ever produced, but move over one column and you may find pure crap.”

Sad, but true. Hartocollis’s mitigating paragraph on Page A14 and all, her piece remains unworthy of the Times because it fuels misunderstanding, the opposite of what reporting should do.

The law says, and journalists routinely report, that failure to get health insurance through an employer, on your own or through the exchanges results in a “penalty,” a word used in the statute. That word sows confusion. The “penalty” is actually a tax, the Supreme Court ruled in upholding the law.

So, to review, there is no penalty, which means a punishment for breaking the law. There is a small tax, as Chief Justice John Glover Roberts wrote in upholding the law.

Calling a tax a penalty is ideological, not reportorial.

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Equating “penalty” with “tax” has no place, absent quote marks and attribution, in reporting (though it is perfectly proper for opinion columns).

To be fair to readers of this reported opinion column — I first learned of this non-enforcement provision three years ago from watching MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who also actually reads the laws he speaks about on the air.

O’Donnell and I have been virtually alone in showing that the imaginary scandal over IRS agents closely reviewing applications for tax-exempt status by some political organizations stems from a faulty 1959 IRS regulation, and that the reviews were done at the direction of a career IRS middle manager who is a self-described conservative Republican.

In fact. Lawrence O'Donnell addressed the Times' "dirty little secret" about the penalty in his Rewrite Segment on Monday night.

So why is this important? Buried in this report by the Arizona Daily Star on Monday, Arizona insurers having trouble with health law exchange, is this passage indicating that my Congressman, Ron Barber, also has not read the law and does not understand it:

U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, a Tucson Democrat, has co-sponsored legislation that seeks to delay the penalties for not having health insurance because of the online enrollment problems

Damnit, Ron, see the above! There are no penalties, and you are feeding GOPropaganda ideological talking points with your pointless bill.

As Abraham Lincoln wisely advised, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."