In Raleigh, North Carolina this past week, members of the Alliance for Retired Americans picketed the state Republican headquarters. They want the party to stop using what they call scare tactics to turn senior citizens against health care reform. It could be the start of a voter backlash against what some say is a misinformation campaign.
From North Carolina Public Radio, Laura Leslie reports.
LAURA LESLIE: It's high noon on one of the hottest days of the summer and a small group of senior citizens is sweating it out here in front of the state GOP headquarters. They're angry about a recent column by national GOP Chair Michael Steele, who said health care reform would lead to rationing for the elderly and deep cuts to Medicare.
Protestor Michael Gravinese says that's not true. And he thinks Steele is trying to frighten seniors like him.
Mr. MICHAEL GRAVINESE: It's pretty blatant and obvious what they're doing. And, you know, that's not for the good of the country. Let's have a reasoned, honest debate about health care.
LESLIE: Gravinese isn't the only one who thinks his gray hair makes him a target for misinformation. AARP does too. The group is spending millions on an information campaign to counter what spokesman Jordan McNerney also calls scare tactics aimed squarely at its members. He says, from a political point of view, targeting seniors makes sense.
Mr. JORDAN MCNERNEY (Spokesman, AARP): Older Americans vote more than any other voting group, especially in midterm elections. So, they're an influential group. And especially for the folks in Medicare, when you tell them things are changing, they get pretty concerned.
LESLIE: AARP is nonpartisan and hasn't endorsed any reform proposal, but it is backing some key provisions to strengthen Medicare. McNerney says a majority of members supported health care reform during the last year, though polls show that support is dwindling.
Mr. MCNERNEY: I think in recent weeks we have seen that the scare tactics do work. In a lot of cases, it's a lot easier to scare people than it is to educate them and get the facts to them.
LESLIE: That's where Brooks Jackson comes in. He's the director of Factcheck.org at the Annenberg School of Public Policy. He says when health care reform was debated in the '90s, most of the misinformation came from industry opponents, like drug and insurance companies. But not this time.
Mr. BROOKS JACKSON (Director, Factcheck.org): The attacks are coming from ideological groups, from individuals who are really responsible to no one but their donors. And there is something of an incentive here for them to make as inflammatory a claim as they can manage regardless of what the facts are, 'cause it helps keep the donations flowing.
LESLIE: Jackson points out that both parties have a long history of stretching the truth when it comes to health care reform. He says, while the Republican Party itself didn't come up with death panels, it has been spreading some misinformation.
Mr. JACKSON: There's certainly been some echoing of claims by party officials that are not true.
LESLIE: Betty Zimmerman says she's trying to fight back. She spends a lot of time talking to friends, neighbors, anyone who will listen to her about what is and is not in the health care reform proposal.
Ms. BETTY ZIMMERMAN: You know, the word goes from one to another. And I think that we as a whole as senior citizens need to - those of us that are active -just need to tell the people what's going on.
LESLIE: Whether or not many senior citizens will do just that, will likely play out over the coming weeks.
For NPR News, I'm Laura Leslie in Raleigh, North Carolina.
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