Kausfiles Special

Who Busts the Times’ Ad Cop?

On August 29, the New York Times reviewed the Republican National Committee’s ad, “Priority MD,” which discusses prescription drugs. Kausfiles reviews the Times’ review.

Writer: Adam Clymer

The Ad: “Under Clinton-Gore, prescription drug prices have skyrocketed–and nothing’s been done. George Bush has a plan: add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. …And Al Gore? …He’s pushing a big-government plan that lets Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctors prescribe. …”

The Commentary: Clymer says the accuracy of the GOP ad, “on its central claim,” is “zero,” because “Mr. Bush does not have a drug plan.” Clymer also says, “When the commercial accuses Mr. Gore of favoring a plan that would let bureaucrats override doctors’ prescriptions, it is mistaken. The administration proposal would involve hiring private industry managers, like those who administer insurance plans today. The managers could establish lists of drugs allowable under Medicare, but those limits could be overriden by any doctor whose prescription identified a particular drug as ‘medically necessary.’” In his conclusion, Clymer implies the ad is “flat wrong in essential elements.”

Accuracy: Poor. Clymer doesn’t know if Bush has a drug plan or not. He only knows Bush hasn’t announced his drug plan. But, according to the Times story right above Clymer’s box, the announcement is scheduled for next week. So Bush’s decision on a plan may well already have been made. Why is it illegitimate to run an ad saying Bush has a plan, if the plan is going to be announced shortly? This isn’t like Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, which was never unveiled.

On Clymer’s second point, note that the ad only says that Gore would let bureaucrats “interfere” with what doctors’ prescribe. Clymer refutes the idea that the bureaucrats would “override” doctors, but the ad doesn’t say “override,” only “interfere.” Certainly drawing up lists of allowable drugs and requiring doctors to make a special effort to choose drugs not on the list might be considered interference. Many doctors believe that the federal Health Care Financing Administration already interferes excessively with their ability to practice medicine, so the worry about bureaucratic interference isn’t easily dismissed.

Scorecard: Heavily biased against Bush. Clymer makes sweeping judgments that aren’t justified by the ad or by his own reporting. Am I saying ad-checkers must adopt a spurious even-handed pose, never daring to say that an ad is “flat wrong?” No. I’m saying when they trash an ad for having “zero” accuracy they should be right in that judgment.

Ad-checking boxes that are as biased as this one are rare, but Clymer’s failing also reflects the tensions inherent in the form. The very placement of the ad “scorecard” on the Times’ hard news pages implies that the best way to judge such ads is on “factual” accuracy, as opposed to more subjective policy grounds. The format also puts pressure on reporters to come to clear- cut conclusions, precisely to avoid deadly even-handedness. But most ads, including this one, aren’t “flat wrong” on fact grounds. They might be effectively denounced on policy grounds, but that’s not something Times reporters are allowed to do. Instead, their policy preferences often express themselves as exaggerated judgments about accuracy.