August 14, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
The New York Times editorial page is a font of disinformation today – a shining exemplar of what is wrong with modern American journalism. Awarded the loftiest perches in the media world, New York Times columnists seem to think their positions make them above having to know what they’re writing about. Apparently they believe their own “feelings” or “impressions” are as good as facts.
Let’s start with Joe Nocera. Nocera, a former Times business writer, should be numerate – capable of understanding numbers. If not, he should at least be able to read other people’s analyses of budgets and fiscal policy proposals. He should at least be able to read the analyses he cites in his own column. Maybe he can, but his column today tells us he doesn’t think he must. Nocera characterizes Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president, as “deeply conservative.” Ryan does hold some social views that are commonly associated with “deep conservatism” – as Laura Bassett of the Huffington Post reported Saturday, Ryan
… cosponsored a bill that would give fetuses full personhood rights from the moment of fertilization, which was even rejected by voters in the socially conservative state of Mississippi. He voted to defund federal family planning programs, authored a budget that dismantles Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, all of which disproportionately aid and employ women, and voted multiple times to prevent women in the military from using their own money to pay for abortions at military hospitals. Ryan also supported a highly controversial bill that Democrats nicknamed the ‘Let Women Die Act,’ which would have allowed hospitals to refuse to provide a woman emergency abortion care, even if her life is on the line.
Ryan also supports the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed the the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He’s against the Affordable Care Act and sensible gun control, too. So in the context of popular parlance, it is at least fair to call Ryan a “deep social conservative.”
Paul Ryan, however, is not a fiscal conservative. According to Nocera, “… talk about limiting the federal government and shrinking the deficit has been central to Republican rhetoric for years. On the other hand, historically, most Republicans haven’t really meant it…. Ryan, however, means it.” (Emphasis added.) No, he doesn’t. Nocera is correct when he says fiscal conservatives claim to want to shrink the government and the deficit. But Ryan wants to shrink only the government. He doesn’t care about the deficit. The proof is in the budgets he proposed as Chair of the House Finance Committee. (House Republicans passed both of Ryan’s budgets.) Matt Miller of the Washington Post, who is a deficit hawk, wrote in yesterday’s Post,
[Ryan's] early “Roadmap for America’s Future” didn’t balance the budget until the 2060s and added $60 trillion to the national debt. Ryan’s revised plan, passed by the House in 2011, wouldn’t reach balance until the 2030s while adding $14 trillion in debt. It adds $6 trillion in debt over the next decade alone – yet Republicans had the chutzpah to say they wouldn’t raise the debt limit! (I remain mystified why President Obama never hammered home this reckless contradiction by insisting that the GOP ‘raise the debt ceiling just by the amount it would take to accommodate the debt in Paul Ryan’s budget.’)
Miller got it right. And what is just plain stunning about Nocera’s column is that within it, he cites and links to this very post by Matt Miller, a post that Miller begins,
The striking thing about Paul Ryan’s ascent is the gulf between his proposals and the way the media have characterized them. Since Mitt Romney named Ryan to the ticket on Saturday, the news has been filled with talk of the ‘fiscal conservative’ (NPR) ‘intent on erasing deficits’ (New York Times) who has become ‘the intellectual heart of the Republican Party’s movement to slash deficits’ (The Post). All of this is demonstrably false.
Roger Cohen, the Times‘ European columnist, adds insult to injury. Totally lacking in any understanding of Ryan’s budget proposals (or Romney’s tax plan), Cohen shares his misapprehensions anyway. He writes in today’s New York Times,
I applaud the Ryan pick because it places front and center what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has called the greatest long-term threat to America’s national security: its debt…. President Obama … has not lifted the United States from its sullen mood or undermining debt habits…. Ryan has built his reputation on having big ideas to balance America’s books…. We may actually get a serious debate on the greatest long-term threat to U.S. national security. Romney, in choosing Ryan, has performed at least that service.
Notice how Cohen has elevated Ryan, who has absolutely no foreign policy credentials, to a hero who would save us from “our greatest national security threat.” Suddenly, in Cohen’s telling, the nerd from Janesville becomes Paul Ryan, International Action Figure – Fighter against America’s Enemies, Foreign and Domestic. Cohen has invented the Ryan action figure on the basis of a complete fabrication – the notion that Ryan would “balance America’s book.”
Where was our hero during the George W. Bush years? Why, he was busy co-sponsoring Bush’s “deficit-exploding tax cuts” and was “passionately opposed to estate taxes” (which affect only wealthy benefactors). (For a good rundown of Ryan’s other legislative “accomplishments,” see the linked article by Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic. He has a notable history of naming post offices and honoring Wisconsin and Ronald Reagan.)
Not even informed right-wingers pretend Ryan balances the budget. Yesterday Derek Thompson of The Atlantic interviewed Alan Viard, a tax expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Viard uses jargon to tell the truth about Ryan’s budget plans, but he tells it: “… it’s reasonable to point out that Ryan hasn’t been specific about how he would try to make his plan revenue neutral.” Translation: based on what Ryan has presented, the deficit would increase beyond what is currently projected.
You know who else agrees that Ryan’s plan doesn’t cut the deficit any time soon? Paul Ryan. David Lauder and Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times note in today’s paper that “Ryan himself concedes that his plan would not balance the budget this decade, predicting it could be balanced by the ‘mid-to-early 2020s’ because his plan would ignite rapid economic growth.” * (Based on, um, history, no credible economist pretends that lower tax rates would “ignite rapid economic growth.” In fact, we have historically low tax rates now, and manufacturers and other businesses – after overpaying their top executives – are still sitting on huge piles of cash rather than investing them in expansionary projects.) The writers also report, “Those tax cuts would reduce overall federal revenue far below the level of spending that Ryan would allow. The result would be a very large deficit – larger than Obama envisions.” Ryan has claimed he would offset revenue cuts by eliminating tax breaks, but he refuses to say what tax breaks he would eliminate. In fact, he intends to increase special tax breaks that most often benefit the wealthy: he would, for instance, eliminate taxes on capital gains, interest and dividends – a move that Romney himself said would be of great financial benefit to him personally: “Under that plan, I’d have paid no taxes in the last two years.” (Not quite true – Romney would have had to pay taxes on his income from paid speaking engagements.)
If Cohen had read some of his colleague Paul Krugman’s recent blogposts, maybe he would not have made the idiotic error he did. (Nocera, on the other hand, made his idiotic error after reading a column that refuted his assertion about Ryan. Evidently reading facts doesn’t help Nocera get them on the page.) Here was Krugman – who is, of course, an actual economist – yesterday in a blogpost titled “The Ryan Role”:
Ryan hasn’t ‘crunched the numbers’; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal….
What … the whole Beltway media crowd has done is to slot Ryan into a role someone is supposed to be playing in their political play, that of the thoughtful, serious conservative wonk. In reality, Ryan is nothing like that; he’s a hard-core conservative, with a voting record as far right as Michelle Bachman’s, who has shown no competence at all on the numbers thing.
What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.
Krugman elaborated later in the day. He said that Romney’s purpose in choosing Ryan was
… about exploiting the gullibility and vanity of the news media, in much the same way that George W. Bush did in 2000. Like Bush in 2000, Ryan has a completely undeserved reputation in the media as a bluff, honest guy, in Ryan’s case supplemented by a reputation as a serious policy wonk. None of this has any basis in reality; Ryan’s much-touted plan, far from being a real solution, relies crucially on stuff that is just pulled out of thin air – huge revenue increases from closing unspecified loopholes, huge spending cuts achieved in ways not mentioned…. A large part of the commentariat decided early on that they were going to cast Ryan in the role of Serious Honest Conservative, and have been very unwilling to reconsider that casting call in the light of evidence.
So that’s the constituency Romney is targeting: not a large segment of the electorate, but a few hundred at most editors, reporters, programmers, and pundits. His hope is that Ryan’s unjustified reputation for honest wonkery will transfer to the ticket as a whole. So, a memo to the news media: you have now become players in this campaign, not just reporters. Mitt Romney isn’t seeking a debate on the issues; on the contrary, he’s betting that your gullibility and vanity will let him avoid a debate on the issues, including the issue of his own fitness for the presidency. I guess we’ll see if it works.
Yeah, it works. It works on the low-information, high-profile columnists in Paul Krugman’s own newspaper. Woe be the readers.
One New York Times columnist whom Ryan has not hoodwinked is – to my surprise – Frank Bruni. In his column today, Bruni writes that Ryan deftly glossed over
… the contradictions, holes and hooey in his story…. Being a Rand devotee and a faithful Roman Catholic is a nifty trick indeed. So is a reputation as a detail-obsessed deficit hawk when your big budget plan lacks crucial details and you spent much of your time in Congress backing George W. Bush’s spending juggernaut. But Ryan knows how to handle the curves in the road, because he has fine-tuned the most valuable oxymoron in political life: he’s utterly slick in his projection of genuineness.
Maybe Bruni does read Krugman, who long ago fingered Ryan as a flim-flam man. Unfortunately, the other columnists on the page have themselves become flim-flam men, pulling one over on Times readers.
Tom Friedman, another low-information New York Times columnist, has boasted that the Times does not edit his columns for content (the result of which has been some farcical mythologizing). The Times policy – as articulated by Friedman – might seem to be a laudable exercise in journalistic independence. But no opinion-writer in any medium should be free to misstate facts as both Nocera and Cohen do in today’s Times. The columnists have a right to their opinions, but their editors must recognize their own duty to the facts. And it isn’t as if the editors themselves are unaware of the facts. In a fine editorial which appeared in yesterday’s paper, the Times editors wrote, “[Ryan] certainly can’t pretend to turn around the economy by eliminating the deficit. Mr. Ryan’s budget would not reach a surplus for 30 years, according to the C.B.O., because he would cut taxes, largely for the rich and for corporations, by $4 trillion. That’s even more than Mr. Romney’s extravagant tax giveaways….”
How is it that on one page, the paper gets the story straight and on the opposite page, its writers just make up stuff? It is past time for the newspaper of record to subject its opinion columns to fact-checks. Particularly in the past few years, the Times columnists have become such embarrassments that spoofing them has become something of a cottage industry. (And, no, posts titled “How to Write a David Brooks Column” do not constitute flattery or reflect envy or grudging admiration.) The Times columnists are an important element of the paper’s brand, and they are sullying that brand name. Times management can continue to blame outside forces for its flagging sales, and I don’t deny that cultural and industry changes have played their parts in the paper’s hard times. But other factors have contributed, and one of them would seem to be the anemic quality of its opinion writing. Maybe the Times figures it must cater to a readership that prefers comfortably stale ideas, but I don’t think there are many readers who prefer inaccuracy and misstatements of fact. The Times charges its readers for a top-of-the-line product but – at least on the op-ed page – gives them a tin of rancid Brand X.
* Update: Ryan acknowledged in a Fox “News” interview Tuesday, “The House budget doesn’t balance until the 2030s under the current measurement of the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) baseline.”
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com