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THE PETER PRINCIPLE! Peter Jennings covers for Bush. And Bumiller? Hopeless, as always: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 14, 2005

THE PETER PRINCIPLE: President Bush is an ambitious man. He wasn’t content to lie in the face of that young farmer at Tuesday’s big forum (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/13/05). The following day, he actually went to a local high school and lied to the students there too! Yes, this really is what the strange man said to a roomful of trusting teen-agers:
BUSH (1/12/05): It’s hard for me to come to a high school class and look at our youngsters and say the Social Security system is in good shape when I understand it's not. To the seniors of America, nothing's going to change when it comes to your Social Security check. But if this Congress doesn't join this administration in working to reform and strengthen Social Security, we will not be able to look at the high school seniors of today and say we have done our duty in protecting Social Security for you; for after all, the system will be bankrupt by the year 2040.

And now is the time for the United States Congress to join with the administration to save and strengthen Social Security for generations to come. (Applause.)

Incredible! Social Security “will be bankrupt by the year 2040?” In fact, according to the CBO, the system will pay full promised benefits through the year 2052—and even after that year, the CBO says, the system will continue paying benefits that are larger than those being paid today! But those high school students didn’t know that—and their principal didn’t complain when their president vastly misled them. And so they applauded the strange, disturbed man who seems to take his greatest joy from misleading those who most trust him.

And how did your “press corps” respond to all this? We think you know what your “press corps” did—they ran to hide behind their desks, pretending that they hadn’t noticed Bush’s wild misstatements! On Tuesday’s NBC Nightly News, David Gregory played tape of Bush at his forum saying that SS would be going “flat bust”—but the pandering fellow (pet name: Stretch) never told viewers that Bush’s statements contradicted all budget projections. It’s a simple matter of objective fact: In fact, there is no projection in which SS goes “flat bust” at any point, let alone in the year 2040. Gregory should have reported those facts. Instead, he played tape of one of Bush’s misstatements, then pretended he didn’t know how bizarre the statement was. But so it goes as Pandering Pundits help spread their king’s disinformation.

Indeed, none of the networks challenged Bush’s wild misstatements at Tuesday’s forum; none of the networks told their viewers what their strange leader had done. As we’ve seen, NBC played tape of Bush, then offered no comment about his wild statements. But at ABC, Peter Jennings found a smoother way to cover for dissembling Bush. When he reported on Tuesday’s forum, here’s what Jennings said:

JENNINGS (1/11/05): We're going to take “A Closer Look” tonight at the president's plans for changing the Social Security system. In fact, you can expect it fairly often on this broadcast. At the White House today, Mr. Bush warned that Social Security would go bankrupt unless Congress steps in. There is, of course, some argument about that. But there's no question that baby boomers will place great strain on Social Security as they retire. And by 2042, by some measures, the system may not have enough cash to pay full benefits. The president, as you may have heard, wants to let Americans divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts. And that might cost $2 trillion over ten years, and certainly force some tough choices in Washington. For a take on this, here's ABC's Robert Krulwich.
Jennings even said some things that were accurate; specifically, he gave an accurate (if highly truncated) account of what the SS trustees have said. “By 2042, by some measures, the system may not have enough cash to pay full benefits,” he correctly told ABC viewers. But at that day’s forum, the president had made wild misstatements about this very matter—statements which were vastly misleading. The great president had made a string of misstatements. All of Bush’s wild misstatements needed to be addressed.

So what did Peter Jennings do? Unlike Gregory, he didn’t play tape of Bush’s wild statements. Instead, he politely “cleaned up” what Bush had said, offering a blander, vaguer version of Bush’s wild misstatements. “At the White House today, Mr. Bush warned that Social Security would go bankrupt unless Congress steps in,” Jennings politely said. Of course, even that statement would be misleading; SS is never going “broke” or “bankrupt” (let alone “flat bust”), as Bush and Jennings know full well. But Jennings’ account of what Bush said was vaguer and milder than Bush’s wild statements. Jennings avoided the need to challenge Bush by tamping down what had been said.

Again, a note from Earth to the Washington press corps: When a president stages a major forum, then makes wild misstatements about major policy, that will almost always be the biggest news event of the day. When a president baldly misstates basic facts, that is a major news story! But on Tuesday evening, none of the three big networks told their viewers what Bush had done. At NBC, Gregory played tape of one wild statement, then pretended he just didn’t notice. But Jennings established a great Peter Principle: Deftly, he sanitized the things Bush had said, pretending the wilder misstatements hadn’t happened. And with that action, he joined our list of Pandering Poobahs for Bush:

ADDING JENNINGS TO OUR LIST: Until we come up with a better name, we’ll call them the Pandering Poobahs of Positivity—journalists who refuse to correct wild misstatements by Bush (and as of yesterday, by Cheney). These timid typists seem to feel they’re being paid to see no evil. Bush wildly misstates at a ballyhooed forum? They’ll find slick ways to avoid that fact. Result? Bush goes to a high school the very next day and lies in the face of a bunch of teen-agers! At any rate, here is our list so far. Don’t worry—our roster will grow:

Pandering Poobahs of Positivity:
1) Peter Jennings, ABC
2)David Gregory, NBC (Gregory’s pet name is “Stretch”)
DISCOURSE ON METHOD: Let’s speak directly to a question of method raised by Kevin Drum and then addressed by Matt Yglesias. There is nothing wrong with objective reporters correcting misstatements by major officials. Indeed, that’s one of the things such reporters should do! Jennings and Gregory refused to serve when they failed to report a bit of big news—the fact that Bush had called a conclave, then vastly misstated key facts.

Duh! Correcting misstatements by major officials is part of a journalist’s job description! And they shouldn’t feel they have to find a Democratic spokesman to contradict Bush; that is their job as reporters. As we think Michael Kinsley first asked, how stupid would it be to write something like this: “Today, George Bush said the earth is flat. A Democratic spokesman quickly challenged him.” Objective reporters don’t need third parties to interject simple matters of fact.

This fall, it briefly seemed that the Post and the Times had begun to accept these basic points. In response to Bush’s campaign dissembling, the papers began to publish reports in which reporters noted the obvious—that public statements by Candidate Bush flew in the face of established facts. When they did so, the reporters in question weren’t injecting “their opinions” into news stories. Quite the contrary—they were simply reporting objective facts. That’s what their job calls for.

AS USUAL, BUMILLER AMAZES: The Washington Post did somewhat better in reporting Bush’s wild misstatements. On Wednesday, Michael Fletcher reported on the ballyhooed Social Security forum. After quoting some of Bush’s wild statements, the Post scribe offered this rebuttal, which included some prime information:

FLETCHER (1/12/05): But some critics say Bush is exaggerating the Social Security problem to build support for his plan for private accounts. For one, they say, the term "bankrupt" does not apply to Social Security. If nothing is done to the system, Social Security could still pay about 73 percent of promised benefits in 2042, when the system's "trust fund" of Treasury bonds will be depleted, Social Security's chief actuary has calculated.

Even after adjusting for inflation, that 27 percent cut in benefits would leave monthly Social Security checks considerably higher than they are now. If nothing is done, a worker retiring in 2055 would receive first-year benefits totaling $16,700 in today's dollars, considerably less than the promised $21,600 but more than today, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

There’s lots of info in that passage. But why does Fletcher cite “some critics” in offering this basic information? In most of this passage, Fletcher is reporting elementary matters of fact. He should do this in his own voice. When he attributes elementary facts to “Bush’s critics,” he makes a simple recitation of fact sound like partisan discourse.

And inevitably, the latest disaster in Gotham! The utterly hapless New York Times assigned Elisabeth Bumiller to this story, and the trembling typist seemed to find it too “frightening” to deal with Bush’s misstatements. Here is her hapless attempt to report on Bush’s huge howlers:

BUMILLER (1/12/05): Many Democrats and economists say that Mr. Bush is exaggerating the problem, and that Social Security could be fixed with modest tax increases and a cut in benefits. Even without changes, Mr. Bush's critics say, the system would be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now, when baby boomers have long retired.
Incredible! According to this hapless scribe, “Bush’s critics” say SS will be able to pay three-quarters of benefits! But in fact, that’s what the SS trustees say, in their official report on the subject—and the CBO says something rosier! Amazing, isn’t it? Bumiller takes an official report and treats it like a screed from Bush critics! Question: Why is this hapless, inept, frightened tool still typing for this weak, hopeless newspaper?