As every freelance writer knows, most magazine articles come and go without a trace. Only a small handful trigger any reaction when they appear. But how many continue to be denounced and debated over a decade after their publication? I know of only one: “No Exit” by Elizabeth McCaughey, which was The New Republic’s cover story for February 7, 1994.
McCaughey’s article was an attack on Bill Clinton’s plan to extend health insurance to all U.S. citizens. McCaughey’s analysis was seriously misleading, for reasons I tried to explain in a 2004 article for The Believer called “Reckless Falsehoods” (linked below). Now American journalist Ezra Klein has revisited McCaughey’s essay, in a blog post that characterizes it as a “dishonest, fearmongering article.”
Klein is right to continue to make an issue of McCaughey’s story and the pernicious role it played in defeating the Clinton plan. I also second his recommendation of the work of James Fallows, who gives a lucid summary of the McCaughey affair in his 1997 book Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. What is especially noteworthy about Klein’s post, however, is that it has generated a response from Andrew Sullivan, who was editor of The New Republic when McCaughey’s essay appeared.
Sullivan’s reply runs together the question of whether the 1994 plan was good legislation with whether or not McCaughey and TNR conducted themselves in a defensible manner. In regard to the second issue, Sullivan writes the following:
I don’t think it’s fair to expose the internal editing of a piece but there was a struggle and it’s fair to say I didn’t win every skirmish. I was aware of the piece’s flaws but nonetheless was comfortable running it as a provocation to debate. It sure was. The magazine fully aired subsequent criticism of the piece. And if the readers of TNR are incapable of making their own minds up, then we might as well give up on the notion of intelligent readers. The piece also won a National Magazine Award.
Like Klein, I want Sullivan to be “more honest” about the McCaughey episode. To that end, I feel compelled to note that Sullivan’s reply is seriously misleading.
After McCaughey won the National Magazine Award, TNR columnist Mickey Kaus wrote a column pointing out how inaccurate her essay was (“No Exegesis,” May 8, 1995). Shortly after Kaus’s column appeared, TNR received the following letter:
April 27, 1995
To the editors:
I was on the panel of judges for the National Magazine Awards and cast my personal vote in the public interest category for the entry from the New Republic, “No Exit” by Elizabeth McCaughey. I did so because I thought it was the magazine article that had the greatest effect on public policy in 1994. I first read “No Exit” and McCaughey’s subsequent reply to administration critics of her article (the reply was also part of the entry) when they appeared in the New Republic. They were convincing to me during the judging of the awards. Perhaps I was right to be convinced, perhaps not. But I now know something for certain: I was wrong to believe the New Republic.
Your magazine endorsed Bill Clinton. The health care plan was a central, if not the central, piece of legislation of Clinton’s presidency. You put a devastating story about the health plan on the cover and then, a few issues later, heralded McCaughey’s reply to her critics with the cover line “Elizabeth McCaughey: White House Lies.” Lies! How could a magazine endorse a story and its author more strongly? As a reader I assume that such endorsement means, at the very least, that the basic facts in the article will be correct. Now I read Mickey Kaus saying in the New Republic that, among other important errors, McCaughey was wrong when she said that the Clinton plan would not allow a patient to pay his doctor directly for medical care but must allow the doctor to be paid by the government plan. Her errors, Kaus writes, “completely distorted the debate on the biggest public policy issue of 1994.” But where was Kaus when the story came in? Didn’t anyone there bother to check McCaughey’s citations to see if she was accurately reading and quoting the plan? It couldn’t have been that hard. If it turned out that you slipped up and McCaughey’s story was wrong, you should have said so yourselves back then rather than waiting for Kaus to shoulder the load at this late date. Then again, how does a reader know that Kaus is right? Did anyone there bother to check his story when it came in?
I am not talking about the difference of opinion between McCaughey and Kaus. A magazine is a chorus of many voices. There is lots of room for disagreement. But that’s not the problem here. Clinton’s plan says what it says. Any article on that plan must be based on accurate statements about what the plan says. Making sure that an article is accurate is one of the things an editor does. If you are not going to do that for a cover story on a central piece of legislation by a president that you endorsed, if you are not going to do that for a follow-up in which you call the administration liars, when are you going to do it? If Kaus was wrong and McCaughey is right after all, then how could you have published Kaus’s column? I can imagine a good magazine publishing neither McCaughey’s story nor Kaus’s story. But I cannot imagine a magazine with respect for its readers publishing both.
Curtis’s letter puts paid to the idea that McCaughey’s article was simply a “provocation to debate.” Publishing both Kaus and McCaughey raises fundamental questions about accuracy that Sullivan has never adequately answered. The fact that Curtis and the other judges did not have all the relevant information when they chose McCaughey’s piece calls into question the legitimacy of the National Magazine Award. Finally, the fact that Sullivan declined to publish Curtis’s letter makes a mockery of his claim to have “fully aired” criticisms of her piece.
I admire Sullivan for admitting he made an error of judgment in supporting the Iraq War. He needs to do the same thing here, and admit he made a serious mistake in the way he handled McCaughey. Only then will he have lived up Orwell’s dictum that “to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle.”
I argue that McCaughey was a worse journalist than Stephen Glass in reckless-falsehoods.pdf.