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As its 2003 support for President Bush's overpriced, unfunded and deeply flawed Medicare prescription benefit showed, the AARP can make some strange political bedfellows.  But in a segment Monday slamming the 40 million member organization over its role in the current health care reform debate, CBS News made some strange bedfellows of it own.  Its content-free coverage of disgruntled AARP members not only helped propagate Republican fear-mongering about mythical cuts to Medicare benefits.  As it turns out, CBS essentially aired an infomercial for a new reactionary right-wing interest group, the American Seniors Association.

In its piece, CBS News did not feature Republican Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) telling the elderly that President Obama wanted to "pull the plug on grandma" or his colleague Mitch McConnell claiming Democrats will be "sticking it to seniors with cuts to Medicare."  CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson (video here) didn't need to in her segment, "Thousands Quit AARP over Health Care Reform":

CBS News has learned that up to 60,000 people have cancelled their AARP memberships since July 1, angered over the group's position on health care.

Elaine Guardiani has been with AARP for 14 years, and said, "I'm extremely disappointed in AARP."

Retired nurse Dale Anderson has 12 years with AARP and said, "I don't wanna be connected with AARP."

Many are switching to the American Seniors Association, a group that calls itself the conservative alternative as CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

While parroting the ASA's claim that the Obama plan "calls for $313 billion dollars in Medicare cuts over ten years," CBS provided neither context nor fact-checking.  As Politifact examined in detail just last week, President Obama is proposing $177 billion in savings from the private Medicare Advantage program, which "costs taxpayers on average of 14 percent more than the traditional Medicare plan."  As Marc Steinberg of Families USA noted, "The core benefits of Medicare won't change."  Just as important, Obama has pledged to reduce the notorious - and financially devastating - "donut hole" in the Bush Medicare drug plan.

Which is why the AARP is not falling for the Republicans' scare tactics.  The organization's vice president for social impact noted, "AARP has not endorsed any plan at this point."  As CBS reported:

Yet the AARP's Cheryl Matheis couldn't find anything to quibble with, including the Medicare cuts which she says will not affect benefits.

Of course, the CBS story wasn't really about health care.  Instead, it was about the reactionary free-market conservative agenda and Republican scorched earth opposition to Barack Obama at all costs.

A little digging into Stuart Barton's 60,000 member American Seniors Association would have made that clear.  Founded in 2005 by Barton's father Jerry as the National Association for Senior Concerns (NASCON), the group targeted the "radical agenda" of the AARP.  Topping its program is Social Security privatization, hard-line opposition to immigration reform, and an overhaul of Medicare, which Barton deemed "the most abused and wasteful of all federal programs that could be bankrupt even before Social Security."  As its press page shows, the ASA is a right-wing talking point regurgitation machine:

"On page 425 of the bill, a person must go to counseling every five years to basically learn how to die," Barton says. "As I read this and hear about no preventative care, it dawned on me that Obama's plan is to let all these baby boomers die quicker so we don't have to care for them in old age."

The ASA's "Four Pillars," also extolled by former Hollywood Squares game show host and honorary chairman Peter Marshall, are a hardliner's dream and a senior citizen's nightmare:

  1. Medicare Reform:  This most abused and wasteful of all federal programs could be bankrupt before the Social Security System runs dry!
  2. Social Security Reform:  Voluntary personal accounts safe from government meddling must be approved providing senior citizens options and keeping the system solvent.
  3. Illegal Aliens:  Lawbreakers do not deserve Social Security payments intended for you and your family who are citizens.
  4. Tax Reform:  An easily understood and simplified tax code in the form of the Fair Tax.

As USA Today reported back in 2003, AARP suffered a membership backlash over its cheerleading for President Bush's Medicare Rx plan.  "15,000 members have told the organization to cancel their membership because of the endorsement." And with good reason.  The Republican give-away to the pharmaceutical industry prohibited direct government negotiations with drug companies, leaving seniors with unnecessarily higher prices and the dreaded donut hole.

This time, the AARP-ASA flap is just about the continuation of the 2008 election by other means.  After all, Americans 65 and older were the only age group to support John McCain over Barack Obama on Election Day.  That opposition is reflected in the generation gap in recent polling on health care, which shows a majority of those over 50 oppose the President's reforms.

But like the furious town hall attendee who amazingly shouted, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," the CBS News story on the AARP wasn't about the truth of the health care reform debate.

It was about being against Barack Obama.

** Crossposted at Perrspectives **

UPDATE 1: Media Matters has more on former AARP member Elaine Guardiani, who, among other things, claimed last March that Barack Obama "was raised as a moslem then a perported christian (although do not believe this)."

UPDATE 2: The New York Times joins the chorus regarding the supposed "mini-mutiny at AARP." While noting that organization lost 70,000 to 80,0000 members over the Bush Medicare prescription plan, the Times made virtually no mention of ASA's far right agenda.

Originally posted to Jon Perr on Tue Aug 18, 2009 at 10:05 AM PDT.

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