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ABC, CBS and NBC All Skip Revelations of Obama Falsehood on Mother's Insurance

Is this going to be the second campaign in a row where the so-called mainstream media will make a fetish of fact-checking the Republican candidates while ignoring the misstatements and gaffes of the Democratic candidates — of which there is now just one, President Barack Obama?

Last week, as the MRC's TimesWatch project documented, the New York Times published a lengthy piece on how the White House 'declined to challenge' a new book by ex-Times reporter Janny Scott that documents how Obama 'mischaracterized a central anecdote about his mother's deathbed dispute with her insurance company.'

The broadcast networks — throughout the 2008 campaign and during the President's push for ObamaCare — repeatedly conveyed Obama's claim that while his mother, Ann Dunham, was sick with terminal cancer, she had to fight with insurance companies to 'pay for her treatment.'

'I will never forget my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether her insurance would refuse to pay for her treatment,' Obama told an August 11, 2009 town hall meeting in New Hampshire.

But ABC, CBS and NBC have yet to mention Scott's now-undisputed account, drawn from a review of Ms. Dunham's correspondence with the insurance company: 'Ann's compensation for her job in Jakarta had included health insurance, which covered most of the costs of her medical treatment. Once she was back in Hawaii, the hospital billed her insurance company directly, leaving Ann only to pay the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.'

Fox News and CNN have reported the revelations (see video), but ABC, CBS and NBC are no-shows on this story, despite numerous pieces in the past few weeks scoffing the supposed misstatements of the 2012 Republican candidates (or, in the case of Sarah Palin, a potential candidate).

In the case of Palin's recounting of Paul Revere's ride, NBC Nightly News spent three straight weeknights challenging Palin's account. After Michele Bachmann officially announced her candidacy last month, network reporters got in her face about her supposed misstatements, with CNN's Kiran Chetry audaciously asking Bachmann: 'Did you mean to make false statements intentionally or were you just misspeaking?'

But none of these networks has found it worth correcting the record about Obama's flawed tale about his mother's battle with the insurance companies, one of his central selling points in his pitch to expand government's role in health care.

It's not as if the media — the big three networks included — hadn't served as a vehicle for Obama's incorrect version of the story over the past several years. A sample:

- From the September 21, 2007 Chicago Tribune (John McCormack): 'Debuting his second new television ad in Iowa this week, Sen. Barack Obama is using an image of his deceased mother to try to make the case that he is the best qualified to bring change to the way the nation delivers health care.... 'To fix health care, we have to fix Washington,' Obama says in the ad, after explaining that his mother spent her final months 'more worried about paying her medical bills than getting well.''

- From Obama's August 28, 2008 speech to the Democratic convention, carried by all of the major networks: 'As someone who watched my mother argue with insurance companies while she lay in bed dying of cancer, I will make certain those companies stop discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.'

- From the October 7, 2008 presidential debate, carried by all the networks: 'For my mother to die of cancer at the age of 53 and have to spend the last months of her life in a hospital room, arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a preexisting condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that.'

- From the July 29, 2009 Washington Post (Ceci Connolly): 'The town-hall-style session at the AARP's Washington headquarters was noteworthy for the human touch Obama applied. Fielding a question about insurance regulation, he spoke of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, at age 52, of ovarian and uterine cancer.... 'She had to spend weeks fighting with insurance companies while she's in the hospital bed, writing letters back and forth just to get coverage for insurance that she had already paid premiums on. And that happens all across the country. We are going to put a stop to that.'

- From CNN's Campbell Brown, March 17, 2010 (Campbell Brown): 'And he doesn't do it often, but he did do it on Monday in Ohio. I just want to play that. He talked about his mom. Listen to this: [Clip of President Obama] 'I'm here because of my own mother's story. She died of cancer and in the last six months of her life, she was on the phone in her hospital room arguing with insurance companies instead of focusing on getting well and spending time with her family.''

- From NBC's Today, November 27, 2010 (MSNBC political analyst Richard Wolffe): 'When you ask, 'Why did he want to risk his presidency on this? Why did he want to put so much on health care?' You could see it when he signed the health care bill into law in the East Room, he got extremely emotional, fighting back the tears. A lot of that comes from his mother's experience, struggling with insurance companies with terminal cancer. Those were the stories that really motivated him through campaigning for health care, and it comes down to that personal thing which I think is surprising for someone we all think of as being very cool and detached from politics.'

Match those statements with what the New York Times reported, and what the White House now does not dispute:

In offering the story as an argument for ending pre-existing condition exclusions by health insurers, the president left the clear impression that his mother's fight was over health benefits for medical expenses.

But in 'A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother,' author Janny Scott quotes from correspondence from the president's mother to assert that the 1995 dispute concerned a Cigna disability insurance policy and that her actual health insurer had apparently reimbursed most of her medical expenses without argument....

Ms. Scott writes that Mr. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, had an employer-provided health insurance policy that paid her hospital bills directly, leaving her 'to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.' ...

Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard, said that if an alternate narrative about Ms. Dunham's dispute had been discovered during the 2008 campaign 'people would have considered it a significant error.' He added: 'I just took for granted that it was a pre-existing condition health insurance issue.'

That doesn't sound like the kind of minor contradiction that the broadcast networks might leave to others to handle, but a major mistake worthy of coverage.


Author Janny Scott has actually given a number of interviews since early May, but it took until mid-July for these revelations to get picked up. Scott was on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross back on May 3, and on PBS's Charlie Rose June 7, but in neither case was she asked about what she learned about Ms. Dunham's insurance vs. President Obama's claims.

Scott was also on MSNBC's Hardball on May 3 to pitch her book, but host Chris Matthews only wanted to use her research to debunk birther conspiracies about where Obama was born:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (Hardball, May 3): Let me ask you — as you did this book and working on getting ready for publication, with all that involves, what were you thinking of these birthers, these wackos out there, we are all questioning whether she actually existed the way we are watching her, actually had — American mother having an American kid and you knew it all as texturized reality, their absolute wall of truth of it and you're listening to these jokers? What was your reaction to all of that?

JANNY SCOTT: It was a little baffling, Chris....I talked to close to 200 people, not a single person ever mentioned any knowledge of Ann Dunham having spent any time in Kenya, around the time of the birth of her son. So, I felt pretty comfortable about that. When it resurfaced, a la Donald Trump, I have to say I was stunned, because I thought it was pretty much a settled issue. And when it continued, I went back and reconsidered all the evidence, and really came to the conclusion that you and everyone else had come to, that it was a classic conspiracy theory. And all evidence to the contrary that you think would convince people otherwise was simply viewed as further evidence of a conspiracy.

It pretty much goes without saying, but if a Republican (Sarah Palin? Michele Bachmann?) had been exposed as wrong about such a central and emotional anecdote, the networks would have had a field day. But in the case of Barack Obama, the fastidious fact-checkers at ABC, CBS and NBC seem to have no interest in correcting the record.

- Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Click here to follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.