The New York Times' Phony Balance on Death Panels, Or When Can We Stop Quoting Wingnuts?

On December 26, the New York Times reported that the end-of-life consultations stripped from the health care law (and infamously dubbed “death panels“ by everyone’s favorite Alaskan reality-TV star) are being pushed forward through Medicare regulations:

When a proposal to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a political storm over “death panels,” Democrats dropped it from legislation to overhaul the health care system. But the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation, starting Jan. 1.

Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.

The story goes on to explain the regulation and Medicare’s justifications thereof, which draw on research from the British Medical Journal and the University of Colorado School of Medicine. As I understand, the goal of end-of-life consultations has always been to give aging people control over their future health care. Since many would rather not have their life prolonged by expensive medical treatment, particularly if they are in poor health, they can say so in advance and save the colossal medical costs that such life-prolonging procedures incur. The Medicare officials, according to the Times‘ reporting, are operating on the consensus of health care experts, who believe such consultations enhance the humanity of end-of-life care. (They also spare grieving family members the wrenching decision of when to “pull the plug.”)

So far so good. Then this:

Elizabeth D. Wickham, executive director of LifeTree, which describes itself as “a pro-life Christian educational ministry,” said she was concerned that end-of-life counseling would encourage patients to forgo or curtail care, thus hastening death.

“The infamous Section 1233 is still alive and kicking,” Ms. Wickham said. “Patients will lose the ability to control treatments at the end of life.”

Here is another unfortunate instance of the Times throwing in a social conservative to maintain “balance.” Look through the paper’s archives and you’re sure to find dozens of iterations of this formula, on issues ranging from abortion to women’s health to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. After the story lays out the expert or scientific consensus and the generally agreed-upon facts, a random social conservative—often one without any credentials on the issue or with a trail of insane statements to their name—will be trotted out to dispute them. (A prime example is Elaine Donnelly, who has been quoted prominently in several Times stories on DADT. Donnelly operates the right-wing Center for Military Readiness and argued that repealing would DADT would lead to “forcible sodomy“ and the spread of HIV in the military.)

Who is Elizabeth D. Wickham, anyway? A quick Google reveals she has a Ph.D. in…mathematical economics and international trade theory! She and her husband co-founded LifeTree, a local anti-abortion group in North Carolina. Its website is full of conspiratorial language like “culture of death,” and attributes said culture of death to things like “the concept of hospice” and “bioethics centers.” Even in her longer, written opposition to Section 1233, the “death panels” portion of the original health care bill, Wickham has simply smeared end-of-life consultations by associating them with assisted-suicide advocate Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). She has not attempted to explain how this measure will lead to the apocalyptic circumstances she constantly conjures.

This is enough, in my opinion, to cast significant doubt on her ability to give an opinion on this issue that serious readers should heed. She has no academic credentials in health care or bioethics and is disputing reputable experts without providing any facts or research. From a purely political standpoint, she is not a leader of religious conservatives, and has not, that we are told, been deployed by the provision’s political opposition. So how does quoting Ms. Wickham help Times readers understand this issue?

Even worse, it’s fairly simple to determine that Ms. Wickham is wrong about end-of-life consultations. Based on everything I read during the health care debate and since, these consultations are a humane and necessary part of health care reform, and the “death panels” logic is damnably false. Contra Ms. Wickham, there is no reason to believe voluntary consultations will result in patients “losing the ability to control treatments,” or that the legislators who supported the measure want to impose euthanasia and rationing on the country. So in effect, the country’s newspaper of record has given a no-name religious activist space to lie about a matter of public policy in which she has no apparent expertise. The Times has met its requirement to break the issue down into binary “sides,” but we’ve been subjected to the misleading spin of an ideologue.

My point here is not, of course, that dissenting or conservative viewpoints should be banned from the New York Times. In fact, this sort of drive-by citation of ideologues does a disservice both to conservatives when they actually have legitimate points and to readers who want to consider alternate perspectives. Wickham’s quote was transparently included just to establish “balance,” and readers are left without any clear idea of whether there is reason to doubt the consensus view. If there is serious disagreement, the reporter should find a credible source and thoroughly explain his or her position. If a prominent Republican or conservative leader vowed to fight the measure, then make note of it. But if there is no serious opposition, or if the serious opposition is dealing in paranoid cant, then I’d love to read a newspaper with the balls to say so.