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ERRING ON THE SIDE OF ERROR! At the Times, they err on the side of confusion. And sometimes they just get it wrong: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 31, 2005

ERRING ON THE SIDE OF ERROR: No, it won’t make a bit of difference in the ongoing Social Security debate. But try to believe that the New York Times’ Edmund Andrews still can’t get the simplest facts straight:
ANDREWS (3/31/05):Under Mr. Bush's plan, workers would be allowed to divert up to 4 percent of their payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts. But people would have to earn at least 3 percent a year after inflation to break even, because their traditional benefits would be reduced by the amount of their contributions, plus 3 percent a year in interest.
Yes, that’s what it says in our hard copy of today’s Times, the one we hold in our hands as we type. (The same mistaken account appears on the Times’ web site, at least right now as we look.) Somehow, though, the Nexis version of this report contains an accurate statement:
NEXIS VERSION OF ANDREWS ARTICLE: Under Mr. Bush's plan, workers would be allowed to divert up to 4 percent of their wages subject to payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts. But people would have to earn at least 3 percent a year after inflation to break even, because their traditional benefits would be reduced by the amount of their contributions, plus 3 percent a year in interest.
It’s like what they say about New England weather; if you don’t like what it says in the Times, just wait a while (or check out some other edition)! But make no mistake: This is one of the most basic facts in this whole discussion, and Andrews simply can’t get it right. Back in December, we marveled when he misstated this fact (links below). But here we are, some three months later—and Andrews misstates it again.

Under Bush’s plan, how much money could a worker really divert into his private account? As we’ve noted, this has long been a key element of GOP spin; from the start, dissemblers have tried to convince the public that only “a small portion” of payroll taxes would be diverted from the traditional SS program. This reassuring claim was always bogus, of course. How much money could a worker really divert? Here’s the (accurate) way Julia Feldmeier explained it in last Thursday’s Washington Post:

FELDMEIER (3/24/05): [Bush’s] proposal would enable workers under 55 to gradually divert nearly one-third of their Social Security taxes into private investments, arguing that such accounts will offset any future benefit reductions. The president touts this plan as a remedy to Social Security under-funding as the ratio of workers to retirees dwindles.
And even that is a semi-conservative account of the amount that can be diverted. If you only include the payroll tax that comes out of a worker’ check—the money most people have in mind when they talk about their “payroll tax”—worker would be able to divert nearly two-thirds of their payroll taxes to those private accounts. But there is Andrews, blundering again, typing the point that the White House loves—falsely saying that a worker could only divert “4 percent of his payroll taxes.”

Please understand why we raise this point. No, Andrews’ recurrent blunder won’t tip the scales on the SS debate. But let’s ask the question we’ve asked you so often: Is there any other professional sector which bungles the simplest matters so routinely? And this: If Andrews can’t get this simple fact right, why should anyone think that he can clarify any part of this deeply-spun story? This recurrent bungling defies comprehension. But that’s the way of your modern “press corps.” Men like Andrews bungle as naturally as other men blink, belch and breathe.

Readers, let’s just say it, all together: Under Bush’s proposal, a large percentage of payroll taxes will be diverted to private accounts! The president and his gang of dissemblers tried to obscure that fact from the start, offering the reassuring but bogus claim that only “a small portion” of payroll taxes is involved. A journalist is supposed to clarify such matters—but helpless bunglers like Andrews still can’t get even this simple fact straight! Even on the simplest points of the most basic spin, Andrews can’t perform his chores. Where in the world—where on Earth—does Gotham’s great Times go to find them?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Andrews bungled this point last December. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/04. Returning the favor, Jeff Birnbaum bungled it in the Washington Post just a few weeks later. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/5/05.

ERRING ON THE SIDE OF CONFUSION: Apparently, there is no law at the New York Times against making accurate statements. Last Wednesday, Anne Kornblut explained this point rather clearly:

KORNBLUT (3/23/05): Critics argue that the accounts would make the Social Security system even less solvent than economists already project it will be in the decades ahead, diverting at least one-third of the current payroll tax away from the program.
We’re not sure why she said “at least.” But yes—under the Bush proposal, about one-third of payroll taxes would go into those private accounts. That’s a very simple—and accurate—way to report this basic point. But according to Nexis, Kornblut is the only Times scribe in the past month to use this simple, straightforward construction. The Times seems to prefer the more obscure and confusing construction—the one which appears in Nexis this morning. Once again, let’s check it out:
NEXIS TEXT OF ANDREWS ARTICLE: Under Mr. Bush's plan, workers would be allowed to divert up to 4 percent of their wages subject to payroll taxes to personal retirement accounts. But people would have to earn at least 3 percent a year after inflation to break even, because their traditional benefits would be reduced by the amount of their contributions, plus 3 percent a year in interest.
Kornblut’s account is accurate—and straightforward. Andrews’ account is technically accurate—and grossly complex. (It also helps maintain the sense that a small amount of money is involved.) You really have to struggle and strain to figure out what Andrews is saying. But the Times prefers this explanation—when it isn’t offering accounts that are just plain flat-out wrong.

Always err on the side of error! And: Always err on the side of confusion! These seem to be the two great cries that prevail at the great hapless Times.

THE WASHINGTON POST GETS IT RIGHT: No, it isn’t hard to make the statement which is both simple and accurate. Here are recent accounts from some scribes at the Post:

JULIA FELDMEIER (3/24/05): [Bush’s] proposal would enable workers under 55 to gradually divert nearly one-third of their Social Security taxes into private investments, arguing that such accounts will offset any future benefit reductions. The president touts this plan as a remedy to Social Security under-funding as the ratio of workers to retirees dwindles

JIM VANDEHEI (3/22/05): Two of Washington's most powerful politicians—Vice President Cheney and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.)—teamed up Monday to pitch personal Social Security accounts...[They] said critics are misleading the public about the risks associated with allowing Americans born after 1950 to voluntarily divert about one-third of their payroll taxes into private accounts.

DAVID BRODER (3/20/05): The political reality, said this House veteran, is that Democrats are adamantly opposed to financing these private accounts by diverting one-third of the current 12.4 percent Social Security tax, as Bush has proposed.

MICHAEL FLETCHER (3/19/05):With the ratio of workers to retirees dwindling, Bush said the nation will not be able to pay promised Social Security benefits far into the future. He has proposed allowing workers to divert nearly one-third of their Social Security taxes into private accounts, which would be invested in a conservative mix of stocks and bonds.

Guess what, readers? News flash!! Just in!! Under Bush’s proposal, about one-third of payroll taxes would be diverted into private accounts! It’s amazingly easy to make that statement—a statement which is simple and accurate. But the gang of bunglers at the great, mighty Times simply refuse to make this statement. Sometimes they err on the side of confusion. And sometimes they just get it wrong.

TELLY’S TUBBER: Here at THE HOWLER, we continue to marvel at last Sunday’s performance by New Republic hot tub enthusiast Michelle Cottle. Go ahead—marvel again at what the water-logged culture warrior told Howard Kurtz on Reliable Sources:

KURTZ (3/27/05): Let's broaden this to other religious-related issues: teaching of evolution in Kansas schools, a lot of coverage there, whether it should be required, whether creationism should be included; the Ten Commandments display in Alabama and elsewhere; even gay marriage in San Francisco. Isn't there some built-in media bias by the East Coast journalists toward those who have a different view of these matters?

COTTLE: I think there is. I mean, it's not that they—again, it's not that they say unpleasant things. But they do behave as though the people who believe these things are on the fringe, when actually the vast majority of the American public describes itself as Christian. You know, a huge percentage, somewhere between a third and a half, actually say that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. And another huge chunk would be uncomfortable with evolution being taught in the schools. And this—this is not what you find in the New York media.

Yes, it’s hard to tell what Cottle meant; incoherence is the modern pundit’s hallmark. But Cottle almost seemed to scold the “New York media” because it won’t hire sufficient Flat Earthers! Should the “New York media” be hiring people who “would be uncomfortable with evolution being taught in the schools?” That’s a difficult claim to make. But true to the nature of modern punditry, Cottle made it sound rather simple.

We strongly suggest that you read this transcript—and when you read it, keep a few points in mind:

First, Cottle complained about the way the establishment press allegedly disses religion. As she did so, Time and Newsweek both featured reverential cover stories about Christian religion. NBC had just completed a week in which all its broadcast and cable shows focused on “Religion in America.” The Pope’s recurrent illness was all over the news. And in the matter of Terri Schiavo, news orgs were being quite deferential to puzzling statements from religion-based observers who “say that they believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.” We’ll offer one case study tomorrow when we ask: Who is Barbara Weller? But Cottle’s sweeping assessment of the press corps’ behavior was a bit hard to square with simple facts.

And with that in mind, note one more point: Everyone on Kurtz’s panel was mouthing this same general talking-point! Kurtz had brought three pundits onto his show—Cottle, Steve Roberts, and Joe Watkins. Watkins is a movement conservative; Cottle and Roberts are routinely pimped as mainstream or “liberal” observers. Yet all four people in this discussion expressed this pleasing conservative spin-point. Go ahead! Read through the whole discussion and see if you can find any room between the views of Watkins on one side, and Cottle, Kurtz and Roberts on the other. Strange, isn’t it? Our press corps is driven by liberal bias—but everyone mouths the conservative spin-point! When they sit in those luxury hot tubs together, it almost seems that their world-views do merge.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you something that was occurring as Cottle slammed the dearth of Flat Earthers. As Cottle was mouthing her tired old cant, a new world was fleeing her notice.