The Affordable Care Act vs. Obamacare

News outlets disagree over how to describe the nation's new health care law. 

Affordable Care Act pamphlet at Metropolitan Family Health Network, Oct. 3, 2013, Jersey City, N.J. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Affordable Care Act pamphlet at Metropolitan Family Health Network, Oct. 3, 2013, Jersey City, N.J. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Associated Press and NPR have decided to cut back on use of the term “Obamacare,” with NPR describing the word as seeming “to be straddling somewhere between being a politically-charged term and an accepted part of the vernacular.”

Stuart Seidel, NPR’s managing editor for standards and practice, issued his style ruling Tuesday after this columnist contended in a note to him that the term can no longer be defended as neutral.

Separately, the AP went further and said the name of the health-care law, the Affordable Care Act, was also prejudicial in that “its very name is promotional; opponents believe it will not be affordable for individuals or the country. . . .”

Tom Kent, deputy managing editor and standards editor, wrote Tuesday, “In AP news reports, our preference is to use wording like ‘the nation’s new health insurance system,’ ‘the health care overhaul’ or ‘the new health care law.’ “

Kent wrote, ” ‘Obamacare’ was coined by opponents of the law and is still used by them in a derogatory manner. It’s true that the White House, and even [President] Obama himself, have used the term on occasion. But the administration hasn’t totally embraced ‘Obamacare’ and still uses the Affordable Care Act much of the time. We’re sticking with our previous approach to ‘Obamacare’: AP writers should use it in quotes, or in formulations like ‘the law, sometimes known as Obamacare, provides for …’ “

The health care law dominated the news this week as enrollment for new online health insurance exchanges opened on Tuesday, generating visits by 2.8 million people to the website and more to others maintained by states. The number of visits was so high that many frustrated consumers could not get through.

At the same time, House Republicans demanded that the law, referred by most of them as “Obamacare,” be delayed, leading to an impasse that resulted in a partial shutdown of the federal government. That sent hundreds of thousands of federal workers from their workplaces and provided more opportunities for journalists to use the “Obamacare” term, which many justified because the president, in a bid to co-opt the word, had begun using it himself.

NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, explained on Sept. 6 why NPR was using Obamacare.

Seidel said in that piece, “the term ‘Obamacare’ has lost its pedigree as a politically charged term.”

Schumacher-Matos concluded then, “It is safe to say, in other words, that the term ‘Obamacare’ has entered the general vocabulary as a largely neutral term. How most of us understand it depends on what we think of the law, and of the president.”

However, this columnist wrote Seidel, in Obama’s Tuesday speech decrying the government shutdown, the president used the term “Affordable Care Act” 10 times but never used “Obamacare.”

In a speech on Monday, Obama used “Affordable Care Act” four times, and again, “Obamacare” not at all.

By contrast, in a House debate on Saturday night, all the Democrats used “Affordable Care Act” and all the Republicans “Obamacare” for the time this viewer was watching. It was consistently “Obamacare” again on Tuesday as Republicans spoke after Obama’s speech.

Moreover, since the Sept. 6 piece was written, the president acknowledged that “Obamacare” was still partisan and still negative.

Last Thursday in Largo, Md., Obama said of the law, “once it’s working well, I guarantee you, they will not call it Obamacare.”

Seidel replied, “You make some good and fair points. I appreciate having them raised. I’m not persuaded that the use of ‘Obamacare’ is wholly inappropriate, but I am persuaded that good effort needs [to be] made to avoid over-using it. I’m sharing that feeling with NPR’s editors and correspondents.”

Seidel’s memo said, ” ‘Obamacare’ seems to be straddling somewhere between being a politically-charged term and an accepted part of the vernacular. And it seems to be on our air and in our copy a great deal. (I haven’t counted, and I’m not going to count: numbers don’t add up to good journalism.) But word choices do leave an impression. Please avoid overusing ‘Obamacare.’ On first reference, it’s best to refer to the ‘Affordable Care Act’ or ‘the health care law.’ On later references, feel free to use ‘Obamacare’ but mix it up with other ways to refer to the law.”

Journal-isms asked other news organizations for their policies on use of the term. Responses indicated that many had not caught up with NPR and the AP.

NBC: A spokeswoman who did not want to be identified said that once the administration started using the term “Obamacare,” the network decided it was acceptable.

Los Angeles Times: Spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan said, “LA Times reporters and editors may consider ‘Obamacare’ as an acceptable term for the Affordable Care Act. In recently revising our guidelines, senior editors responded to staff requests to allow the usage, in light of widespread public understanding of the term and the use of the term even by the White House and supporters of the act, not just opponents.” She said the revision took place last week.

“PBS NewsHour”: Anne D. Bell, public relations manager, said, “Guidelines are to use Affordable Care Act as the first reference and then in subsequent references ACA, health care law or ‘Obamacare’ are acceptable alternatives.”

Chicago Tribune: Joe Knowles, associate managing editor/editing and presentation, said he sent the following style entry to his staff on Wednesday: “Obamacare Note the lowercase ‘c.’ Acceptable in references to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which is frequently shortened to the Affordable Care Act. Try to use the formal or shortened formal name of the law somewhere in the body of a news story. Allow columnists and editorial writers greater license.” Knowles told Journal-isms, “We are still urging people to try to get the official name in the body of the story somewhere, preferably high up.”

New York Times: Spokeswoman Eileen Murphy  said, “There is no written policy in the Stylebook and we use both terms frequently.”

As reported this week, CNBC said it had asked half of 812 poll respondents if they supported Obamacare and the other half if they supported the Affordable Care Act.

“First thing: 30 percent of the public don’t know what ACA is, vs. only 12 percent when we asked about Obamacare. More on that later,” Steve Liesman reported.

“Now for the difference: 29 percent of the public supports Obamacare compared with 22 percent who support ACA. Forty-six percent oppose Obamacare and 37 percent oppose ACA. So putting Obama in the name raises the positives and the negatives. . . .”

He-Said, He-Said Approach Faulted in Shutdown Coverage

Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe just days before the looming deadline for a federal government shutdown, Politico’s Mike Allen was assessing the politics of the controversy and predicting which Beltway players would get tagged with the blame for the intentional legislative debacle,” Eric Boehlert wrote Tuesday for Media Matters for America.

“Despite the fact that Republicans were refusing to fund the government if the White House balked at the demand to essentially repeal its 2010 health care law, Allen suggested President Obama would be the real political loser.

“Why Obama? Because he’s more famous than the GOP congressional leaders whose actions are causing the impasse.

” ‘A lot of people in the country don’t know John Boehner. There’s no one in the world who doesn’t know Barack Obama,’ Allen explained. ‘So when Washington is not working, it’s going off the rails in a very visible way, a way that is vivid and touches people, that’s not good ultimately for the president.’

“That’s an awfully tenuous path to blame Obama for the Republicans’ proudly obstructionist strategy to stop funding the government.

“Yet so it goes within portions of the Beltway press corps who are straining to include Democrats in the shutdown blame game; to make sure ‘both sides’ are targeted for tsk-tsk scoldings about ‘Washington dysfunction,’ and that the Republicans’ truly radical nature remains casually ignored. This media act is getting old. And this media act may be emboldening the Republicans’ extreme behavior. . . .”

Dan Froomkin agreed Tuesday in a piece for Al Jazeera America. “U.S. news reports are largely blaming the government shutdown on the inability of both political parties to come to terms,” he wrote. “It is supposedly the result of a ‘bitterly divided’ Congress that ‘failed to reach agreement’ (Washington Post) or ‘a bitter budget standoff’ left unresolved by ‘rapid-fire back and forth legislative maneuvers’ (New York Times). This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism. It is also a failure of democracy. . . .”

Charles Babington and Jim Kuhnhenn, Associated Press: Shutdown gives Obama unlikely ally: Big business

Broadcasting Board of Governors: Core BBG Activities [such as Voice of America] to Continue During U.S. Government Shutdown

James E. Causey, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Give ’em the boot, Barack!

Michael H. Cottman, Cold-Hearted: Radical Republicans Shut Down Government to Spite Obama

Joe Davidson, Washington Post: Shutdown means mission stymied, not mission accomplished for federal employees

Jarvis DeBerry, | the Times-Picayune: Obamacare debate shows indifference of haves toward have-nots

Jarvis DeBerry, | The Times-Picayune: Congress doesn’t reflect America’s choice

Lewis W. Diuguid, Kansas City Star: Victims in federal shutdown will keep growing

Tim Giago, The survival of Indian people is taking a new turn

Keli Goff, The Root: 5 Ways Obamacare Benefits Black Women

Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, New York: Obamacare crippled by computer bugs on a forgettable day 1

Emil Guillermo blog, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund: Shutdown Government: American Democracy Is Breaking Bad

Eric Hananoki, Media Matters for America: Fox Fix: In AP Reports, “Shutdown” Becomes “Slimdown”

Anna Li, Poynter Institute: Government shutdown closes websites, affecting data journalists

Trudy Lieberman, Columbia Journalism Review: Exchange Watch: Telling half a story about the federal exchanges

Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute: Don’t call it an impasse, stalemate, or standoff

Evan McMurry, WaPo Editorial Board Changes Its Mind: GOP to Blame for Shutdown

Media Matters for America: 15 Myths The Media Should Ignore During Obamacare Implementation

Courtland Milloy, Washington Post: Shutdown punch: Right-wing fanatics throw haymaker at Pr. George’s County

Judy Molland, Here’s What You Need to Know About the Affordable Care Act

Cedric Muhammad blog, Forbes: The Pyrrhic Shutdown: The Tea Party Injured Itself And Just Won The GOP The White House In 2016

Brendan Nyhan, Columbia Journalism Review: The roots of the shutdown fight

Donna Owens, the Grio: Black federal workers bear brunt of government shutdown

Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune: Washington’s 3-party Congress

Jessica Prois & Eleanor Goldberg, HuffPost BlackVoices: How Government Shutdown Hurts The Most Vulnerable, And How You Can Help

Noah Rothman, GOP Reps Call Out CNN Anchor in Battle over Shutdown: ‘Whose Bidding Are You Doing?’

Michelle Singletary, Washington Post: Health-care rollout as expected, not as planned

David Swerdlick, The Root: Obama Has Compromised Already

Armstrong Williams blog: Republican firing Squad!