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Daily Howler: Why is it easy for Bush to mislead? Dionne takes the heat off his colleagues! (Also: Do NOT miss today's Howler History)
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E. J. DIONNE MAKES IT EASY! Why is it easy for Bush to mislead? Dionne takes the heat off his colleagues! (Also: Do NOT miss today’s Howler History): // link // print // previous // next //

E. J. DIONNE MAKES IT EASY: What makes it so easy for President Bush to disinform young voters about SS? Sadly, E. J. Dionne explains the process in today’s Washington Post.

Dionne, of course, understands that Bush is a master of slippery deception. His column is called “Holes is a Web of Budget Deceit,” and yes, the “deceit” belongs to George Bush. Dionne seems to know what Bush is about. Here’s how his column gets started:

DIONNE (2/11/05): Let us stand back in awe at the Bush administration's genius. Few administrations in our history have been more successful in setting the terms of the political debate. None has been as skilled at getting its facts accepted as plausible even when they are not. None has looked so principled, even when it said one thing while doing another.
But why has Bush been so successful at getting his fake facts accepted? When Dionne explains the process, he makes it sound like your press corps’ cowardice is almost a matter of principle:
DIONNE (continuing directly): More than any of his predecessors, President Bush understands the conventions of journalism and the traditions of political debate. These require that respectful attention be paid to whatever claims the president makes. Journalists who have the temerity to question whether the claims ring true (or whether the numbers add up) can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts.
Sorry—there simply is no “convention of journalism” which requires respectful treatment of bald-faced misstatements. As civics textbooks tell your eighth-graders, traditions of journalism require skeptical, aggressive “attention” to such misstatements by presidents. But later in this mewling paragraph, Dionne takes us to the place where the rubber meets the road. According to Dionne, journalists who question Bush’s fake facts “can count on being pummeled...even when they are only seeking the facts” Is that what keeps them from challenging Bush? If so, there’s a term for their conduct—cowardice. But Dionne avoids such unlovely words. Indeed, by the time he finishes describing his tribe, he makes it sound like their endless group silence has been a principled act of self-abnegation. He cites two recent commentaries in financial journals (one based in London!) which challenge Bush’s budget:
DIONNE: Personally, those critiques gave me hope. Perhaps we are finally reaching the point at which hardheaded journalists are realizing the limits of "on the one hand, on the other hand" formulas where Bush's budget facts are concerned. Some facts are true. Some facts, no matter how well spun, aren't facts at all.
What nonsense! Because the Financial Times (in London!) critiqued Bush’s budget, Dionne thinks he sees a better day dawning. But he insists on pandering to his cohort as he does so, pretending that “hardheaded journalists” have somehow been kept from discussing Bush’s endless deceptions by the “formulas” of their profession. Why has it been so amazingly easy for Bush to deceive the rubes on SS? Because even a man like Dionne will offer this cover for his colleagues. Because even Dionne will offer this pap about what his colleagues have done.

Yes, if journalists challenge misstatements by Bush, they get pummeled for their conduct. But so what? When these journalists roll over and gaze into air, even a man like E. J. Dionne will pretend that they’re still “hardheaded journalists” locked in by “the conventions of journalism.” Why has it been so easy for Bush? Because even a man E. J. Dionne will cover for the press corps’ store-bought cowards. They’re pummeled by Bush when they seek the truth. And they’re praised by Dionne when they cower.

NOTES ON THE DISINFORMED: Make no mistake—the American public is always misinformed (whatever their president may be doing), and the press corps hates discussing this basic fact of American life. The press corps rarely discusses the information surveys which routinely show the public’s lack of knowledge. The press corps loves to discuss what school-kids don’t know, but rarely mentions an un-lovely fact—the parents of those troubling children are most likely clueless as well.

But yesterday, the Washington Post broke the rule, and we got a look at what occurs when a sitting president is dissembling—and when E. J. Dionne’s “hardheaded” tribe observes “the conventions of journalism.” Richard Morin reported an important survey by the Post—a survey designed to measure the public’s knowledge about Social Security (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/05). The results, of course, were fully predictable. As always, the American people are deeply misinformed about the SS program itself, and about the president’s plan to “reform” it. Let’s review two parts of the study.

First, how well does the public understand the financial costs of establishing private accounts? Morin reports the views of 58-year-old Jerry Traylor, from Newell, Alabama. Traylor “said he supports Bush’s proposal for personal accounts.” But uh-oh! Like nearly half of those surveyed, Traylor was weak on his facts:

MORIN (2/10/05): [L]ike nearly half of those surveyed, Traylor wrongly believed that the costs of creating personal accounts would be negligible. Told that the Bush administration estimates the government initially would have to borrow more than $700 billion to set up such a system, he was incredulous. "That seems very excessive," Traylor said. "I would be less inclined to favor it if it costs that much. That much money could serve a lot of good purposes."
As noted, Traylor was hardly an outlier. “That cost estimate proved to be the most effective of four arguments against Bush's proposal tested in the polls, Morin writes. “While 56 percent said they support a plan for individual investment accounts, more than half of those said they would be less likely to do so after hearing the estimate.”

As always, the American people don’t know the simplest facts. And as always, the American press corps was weak, frightened, cowardly. After all, what would Traylor have thought if he’d been told the real cost of setting up those accounts? Rather than tell him the actual cost—many trillions over several decades—Morin and his cowardly colleagues did exactly what Dionne described. They used the fake, phony fact which Bush has employed—that partial cost, for just the first ten years—instead of giving Traylor a more accurate number. What would the American people think if they were told the real costs of this plan? We don’t know, because the Post—bowing to the “conventions of journalism” and avoiding the chance of “getting pummeled”—used the Bush Admin’s fake, phony fact when they surveyed the public’s reaction.

So yes, as always, the Washington Post fled in fear from Bush—sorry, they bowed to “conventions of journalism.” And as always, Morin and associates sometimes asked the wrong questions. Consider a central finding of Morin’s report—a finding which Morin thought was so key that he used it to open his article:

MORIN (pgh 1): Most Americans are certain Social Security will go bankrupt but are not ready to embrace changes that would shore up the system's finances, according to two surveys by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Seven in 10 Americans agree with President Bush that Social Security eventually will go bankrupt if Congress fails to act, though most predict that the system will not do so for at least two decades. Yet while Bush has warned of a crisis in Social Security, barely one in four Americans believes that a crisis exists.

Most Americans agree with Bush—Social Security will eventually go bankrupt. (Twenty-eight percent think SS will go bankrupt “within twenty years.”) On its surface, this is an important finding; as we’ve discussed again and again, the notion that SS is going “bankrupt/flat broke/flat bust” has been a key Bush spin-point. But what do these Americans mean when they say SS will go “bankrupt?” Do they mean that the system will cease to exist? Such a belief would be mistaken; according to the SS trustees, the system will still pay about three-quarters of promised benefits after 2042, the year after which Bush says it will be “bankrupt.” Do Americans know that that’s what Bush means when he says SS will be “bankrupt—flat bust?” There is no way to know, because Morin didn’t ask. When he asked about transition costs, he was too afraid to give a real number. When he asked about Bush’s most critical spin, he was too unskilled to ask relevant questions.

Make no mistake—the Post has provided a massive service by offering this information survey, although its results were fully predictable. As always, the American people are grossly uninformed, even about this crucial debate. How sad, then, that the cowardly Post won’t run news reports about Bush’s deceptions. The Post sometimes discusses Bush’s endless dissembling—in editorials and op-ed columns (see below). But out on page one, they know to keep quite, saving themselves from a nasty “pummeling.” Oh, we’re sorry—we forgot, we misspoke. When the Post gazes off into space on page one, it’s maintaining its mighty “conventions.”

POSTSCRIPT: DON’T LOOK ON PAGE ONE: It’s truly remarkable to read what was written in yesterday morning’s papers. First, there was the Post’s editorial about Bush’s relentless dissembling. “The Social Security discussion offers a double dose of budgetary dishonesty,” the editors said, specifically referring to Bush’s deceptions. Indeed, the editors described what they called “a real outrage: the continuing, repeated brazenness of the Bush manipulating budget windows to their liking.” Of course, just nine days earlier, these same fickle editors had winked at Bush’s endless deceptions, saying that “a bit of hyperbole in the cause of generating responsible action on Social Security isn't the worst sin that is apt to be committed” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/05). Nine days later, for whatever reason, the eds seemed tired of Bush’s deceptions. And so were the editors of the New York Times, who slammed Bush even more directly:

NEW YORK TIMES (2/10/05): Whenever the Bush administration wants to sell a costly new program, look carefully before you accept any numbers it puts out. The math isn't just fuzzy, as the current euphemism would have it—it is often downright misleading, and deliberately so.
No kidding! As we’ve noted for day after day, Bush insists on “deliberately misleading” voters, and finally, editors at both papers said so. And both editorials gave basic information about the deceptions Bush has put forward. Bush has dissembled about Medicare, both papers said, and of course, about Social Security.

To these editorials, we offer an obvious reply: Why is this information found on these papers’ editorial pages? When a president makes repeated statements that are “downright misleading,” that is, of course, major news! But as we’ve noted several times, you have to turn to these papers’ editorial pages to get basic info about Bush’s dissembling. On the front pages of these two papers, frightened, store-bought, mewling editors are too afraid to examine these topics. Where are the front-page news reports examining Bush’s claims on SS? As you know, those stories don’t exist. After all, journalists get “pummeled” when they offer such stories. Oh sorry—let’s be more correct. “Hardheaded journalists” break with “conventions” when they examine the things Bush has said.

Morin’s survey makes it clear—Americans need those front-page stories. The public is deeply misinformed about SS, and Bush is on TV each night, making “deliberately misleading” statements. Americans need to see those statements critiqued. They need to see less “respectful attention”—even if it leads to the “pummeling” store-bought scribes simply deplore.

HOWLER HISTORY—The case of the plutocrat pundits

THE CASE OF THE PLUTOCRAT PUNDITS: Yesterday, we watched Time magazine’s disgraceful Joe Klein as he covered for Bush about Social Security. But this sort of thing has gone on for years, ever since Campaign 2000. In May of that year, Candidate Bush unveiled the high-minded “principles” which have guided his thinking about SS. In response, Candidate Gore rejected the notion of private accounts—and millionaire pundits swung into action, “pummeling” Gore for his heresy.

One of those well-scripted pundits was Klein. On May 6, he appeared, for the full hour, on Tim Russert’s eponymous CNBC show. The pair of plutocrats battered Gore for daring to oppose private accounts. Now that we all understand this issue better, we thought you should see the way the “liberal press corps” handled it back in 2000.

How did the pair of plutocrats go after Gore? They started by pimping an RNC line—Al Gore is a big, major panderer:

RUSSERT (5/6/00): There's Al Gore being accused, fairly or unfairly, pretty widely, of being a panderer. As George W. Bush said, “He'll say anything to get elected.” In your book, it says here, “Maybe the price of the United States Senate seat should be to tell the truth about something difficult, at least once, publicly.” Getting harder and harder, as we talked about earlier with John McCain. Take Elian Gonzalez. Al Gore saying, “No, no, no. It should be decided in a family court.” Not what the president or the attorney general said.
Laughable, isn’t it? Russert said that Gore was “pandering” in his stand on the Elian matter. What Russert and Klein knew not to say—George Bush held the exact same position! (So had Clinton and Reno, till they switched.) But this was standard all over the press corps—battering Gore for his stand on the matter, while failing to note that Bush held the same view. As the plutocrats continued, they raised SS—and recited another RNC line:
KLEIN (continuing directly): You know, the Gore campaign has been pretty distressing in that—in that way. I haven't seen—aside from trade, where he will talk about free trade to labor audiences, I haven't seen him say anything difficult to his core constituencies. But, you know, one of the reasons why I do this, why I've been doing it for 30 years, it isn't to tear them down or to watch them stumble, but it's for the moments when they act courageously and in—in an inspirational way...The—the concern I have about the Gore campaign is that he has learned one lesson and he's kind of becoming a one-trick pony.

RUSSERT: Attack. Attack. Attack.

KLEIN: Attack. Attack.

Standard! When Gore rejected those private accounts, all good pundits knew to say it. Gore was being nasty and negative—he was involved in “attack—attack—attack.” (To see Mort and Fred read from the same script, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/04). How important was this script? As Russert continued, he recited the script one more time. And Klein recited another key script—Al Gore is just scaring people:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Governor Bush put forward a Social Security plan calling for a partial privatizing, and he attacks, saying that is risky. The fact is, President Clinton proposed taking parts of the Social Security trust fund and putting them in the stock market in his State of the Union message just—just a year ago. [Clinton had briefly proposed investment by the government, with attendant risks to be shared by all.] Yesterday, you had Pat Moynihan and—and Bob Kerrey and John McCain all coming out, saying, “Let's have a commission and this is an idea worth looking at.” Why, why—why does Gore just auto—almost knee-jerk attack, attack, attack?

KLEIN: Well, because it's—it's, you know, scaring people about Social Security. Medicare has worked for the Democrats since time immemorial. In this case, you know, it's really interesting, Gore is in a—you know, for someone who is so wedded to the information age, he really is being reactionary, I think, on— You know, the three big things government does domestically are old-age pensions, health insurance and education. And on all three of those areas, we have the potential this year for a really interesting debate about whether we move those programs from the industrial age, these bureaucratic, top-down, controlled programs, to much more information style—information age-style programs where you give people, like with Bush's Social Security idea. I guess it's actually Kerrey and Moynihan's Social Security idea that Bush has bought into where you give people some control over their future. I mean, this is the information age. People know a lot more, they demand a lot more interactivity, and I think that those three basic systems—education, parents are gonna demand a lot more choice; health insurance, I think that—that consumers are gonna demand choice; and pensions, same thing. And on all three of those—well, two out of the three, I'd say, Bush has—has taken a more progressive position, I believe, than Gore has.

Bush was “more progressive” than Gore! Now, Russert engaged in some consummate clowning. Absurdly, he said that “the facts are simple” about this SS—and proceeded to recite a set of facts straight from the RNC handbook, a set of “facts” that were simply stunning for their store-bought selectivity:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): But the role of media becomes critical here, Joe Klein. If— The facts are simple: When Social Security began, Franklin Roosevelt, genius, he—the life expectancy at that point was 63. He made eligibility for Social Security 65.

KLEIN: Right.

RUSSERT: It was a, was a very popular program. There were 45 workers for every retiree and life expectancy was exactly that age. Now we're approaching two workers for every retiree. Life expectancy is 78 going to 85. You're going to have 80 million people on Social Security and Medicare for about a fourth of their life, for three to 20 years. Everyone knows that, and yet when you present it to Al Gore, he'll say, “No problem. I'll take the surplus and it'll pay for it.” Even his own secretary Treasury written volumes of reports—trustees reports, will say, “No, it doesn't work that way.”

KLEIN: No, it doesn't.

RUSSERT: What is our job? Can we call time out and say, “Excuse me, Mr. Vice President, it doesn't add up?”

Laughable, isn’t it? As we now know, Bush’s plan doesn’t “add up,” just as Candidate Gore was saying, but viewers wouldn’t hear that this day. Instead, Russert recited selective “facts,” then fantasized about the entire press corps calling “time out” to contradict Gore on the matter! So Klein engaged in another fantasy, about those great private accounts down in Chile. And oh yes! He remembered to say it! The system won’t be there for them!
KLEIN (continuing directly): I suspect that he's gonna have trouble with this as this goes on because, in part because younger people, the generation coming up, those eight or 12 of them who are actually interested in public life, understand that unless this system changes, they're not gonna have pensions and they want to have control over their futures. It's also a great social policy, I think, to give people a stake in the economy that way.

I was down in Chile where they do this big time. They're way ahead of us in this regard. And—and I was in factories where workers who were former socialists would come out and show me their stock portfolios. And, you know, giving workers, you know, ownership of the means of production, that's—I think that's a pretty big deal. But I think that's the future, if you're living in a world of computers, rather than a world of assembly lines.

This led Russert, Klein’s fellow plutocrat, to think about the piles of money owned by average people like him. And of course, both fellows had to mention those “earth tones.” It was a bit of complete, total nonsense. But it was in their tribe’s Big Book of Scripts:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): I work for NBC, which was taken over by GE. People in the news business thought, “Oh, my God, what's going to happen now?” I have a whole group of people who are approaching retirement age who for the last ten years put their money into their GE retirement stocks and are walking out now in a very secure position. It's fascinating as you watch it. Half the country now doesn't invest in stocks.

You mentioned Al Gore going to the back of the plane, being likeable, irreverent. Why doesn't the public ever see that side? Why—why doesn't he just, when he takes off his jacket and puts his earth tones on display, also have this personality that no one sees?

KLEIN: Well, I'll tell you, when he puts on that—you know, when he, when he, when he dresses in earth tones and does town meetings, he's pretty damn good. I mean, he is excellent. He's very well-informed. When he talks about things he actually believes in, you know, he can be if not, you know, heartwarming, certainly impressive. The truth is that that back-of-the-plane Al Gore is no more the real Al Gore than the front-of-the-plane Al Gore is, you know. I once asked Tipper who the real Al Gore was. And she said, “You know, you put Bill Clinton in the middle of a room and he's gonna want to hug everybody. You put Al Gore in the middle of a room full of people and what he really wants to do is go sit off in the corner and play with his computer.”

Gore is “very well-informed,” Klein said. But it never entered the plutocrat’s mind that Gore might be “very well-informed” on SS, or that might “actually believe in” the things he was saying about it. But that’s the way it is with this class. Throughout history, men like this have sat in their clubs and blown this sweet smoke in the air:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): Ouch! That was the running mate. We'll be right back. "The Running Mate," by Joe Klein, a new novel. A lot more to talk about right after this.
“Ouch,” Russert knew he should say, about Klein’s parting riposte.

Now that we all understand SS better, we can all understand the sheer inanity of that day’s discussion. But yes—this is the way the “liberal” press corps handled the Bush-Gore campaign from Day One. Five years later, Klein would cover up for Bush’s dissembling—and Time would put his garbage into print. And why not? Given the way the modern world works, he was just another “hardheaded journalist” abiding by his cohort’s “conventions.”