National Review is calling Sarah Palin's "death panel" rhetoric "hysteria." Senator Chuck Grassley quietly retracted his claim that the government could decide to "pull the plug on grandma" under proposed health care legislation in Congress. And even more extreme sources like Fox News, Glenn Beck, and Dick Morris have been forced to concede that there is no explicit "death panel" provision in the legislation (though they argue that it will create rationing that amounts to "de facto death panels").
Unfortunately, myths spread so quickly these days that the damage to the health care debate may already be irreversible. A Pew poll released yesterday finds that 86% of Americans have heard of the "death panel" claim. Among this group, fully half of Americans either believe the claim is true (30%) or don't know (20%), including 70% of Republicans (47% true, 23% don't know). Results from a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll using different wording are nearly as discouraging -- they estimate that 11% of Americans and 28% of Republicans think "death panels" are real, and an additional 17% of Americans and 31% of Republicans aren't sure. Either way, it's not clear that subtle backtracking by conservative elites will move those numbers back down anytime soon.
Update 8/24 10:25 AM: The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer also admitted that "there are no 'death panels' in the Democratic health-care bills, and to say that there are is to debase the debate." However, like Fox, Beck, and Morris, he then goes on to claim that the funding of end of life consultations is "intended to gently point the patient in a certain direction, toward the corner of the sickroom where stands a ghostly figure, scythe in hand, offering release."