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Top Lie of 2009 -- Health Care "Death Panels"

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By Seth Michaels

This year, opponents of health care reform hit new lows in promoting misleading, inaccurate or flat-out dishonest information. The worst of these lies was the scam that health care reform would create “death panels” whose members would judge whether to end seniors’ lives.

The website PolitiFact called the death-panel myth the “Lie of the Year,” and the watchdog group Media Matters named its originator, Betsy McCaughey, as “Health Care Misinformer of the Year.”

The vicious, absurd fairy tale of “death panels” got its start in July, when McCaughey, a former New York lieutenant governor, claimed on the air that, in a reformed health care system, seniors would be mandated to attend counseling sessions where they’d be told how and when to end their lives.

Despite being entirely invented, the claim spread rapidly—first among right-wing pundits and talk show hosts, then among anti-reform elected officials and finally bubbling up into mainstream press reports.

It was former Alaska governor and onetime vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who really pushed the lie into the wider debate. In a post on her Facebook page, Palin—never noted for her adherence to the facts or her policy expertise—introduced the phrase “death panels” in an attack on health care reform. It was a deliberate, groundless scare tactic meant to create anxiety about health care reform, and the term “death panel” spread to the floor of the U.S. Congress and the front pages of newspapers.

The “death panel” myth was at the heart of the loud and angry disruptions at town hall meetings over the summer, as extremists armed with disinformation (and sometimes organized by corporate-funded front groups) tried to scare lawmakers away from passing health care reform. Union members helped fight back—with reasoned arguments and civility—against the campaign of lies and noise, and set the nation back on the path to health care reform.

It’s also worth mentioning PolitiFact’s runners-up for “Lie of the Year”:

-- Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck claimed that John Holdren, President Obama’s top science adviser, “has proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population.”
-- Orly Taitz claimed that a birth certificate showed that
President Obama was born in Kenya.

Against opposition this hostile to the truth, we need to fight even harder.

For some great, comprehensive examinations of how the death panel smear emerged and spread, check out PolitiFact and Media Matters.


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