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OUTLOOK GIVES IT A TRY! Bless their hearts! Outlook tried to explain the deficit—or at least, they pretended to try: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JUNE 30, 2011

Our fund-raising drive nears its end/Tomorrow is for history: Our non-annual fund-raising drive its nearing its end. If you want to beat the weekend crowds, we’ll suggest that you simply click this.

Tomorrow, the nation moves toward the fourth of July. For your weekend erudition, we’ll give you another dose of American history—the kind of history good boys and girls all agree we should never discuss.

Easy to be played: Good lord. It’s easy to get our highest journos to fall for semantic sleight of hand.

(As a general principle, this takes us back to the founding of THE HOWLER—back to the days when Haley Barbour convinced the mainstream press corps that no one was trying to “cut” Medicare—that the vile Bill Clinton was lying again when he used that traditional language. Links below.)

Our journalists aren’t skillful with their semantics! Consider a passage from Mark Landler’s front-page report in today’s New York Times. In our hard-copy Times, this is Landler’s bizarre account of those debt ceiling talks:

LANDLER (6/30/11): On Monday, [Obama] took over stalled talks led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., meeting with Senate Republicans and Democrats, and on Wednesday afternoon he met with the Democrats.

So far, the president’s involvement seems mainly to have dramatized the gulf between the White House and the Republicans on fiscal priorities.

By all accounts, the round of negotiations steered by Mr. Biden made significant progress in identifying spending cuts, like the Pentagon budget, and revenue-generating items, like increased pension contributions by federal workers. But with the Aug. 2 deadline looming for the expiration of the government’s borrowing authority, the partisan maneuvering on both sides has increased.

You’re right: “The Pentagon budget” isn’t “a spending cut. (Although it could be the source of a cut.) But consider the remarkable claim that “increased pension contributions by federal workers” should be seen as a “revenue-generating item.”

We’d have to say that’s just incredible.

On-line, that highlighted passage has been cleaned up. The purported examples have been deep-sixed. Readers are only told this:

LANDLER ON-LINE: By all accounts, the round of negotiations steered by Mr. Biden made significant progress in identifying spending cuts and revenue-generating items. But with the Aug. 2 deadline looming for the expiration of the government’s borrowing authority, the partisan maneuvering on both sides has increased.

By itself, that highlighted passage is quite remarkable—and quite Republican-friendly. Surely, many readers will be surprised to read that the two parties have been able to agree on “revenue-generating items.” The whole complaint about the GOP has involved its refusal to consider new revenues. In that passage, we are told that, “by all accounts,” the two parties have agreed on such items.

What could those items possibly be? For ourselves, we would have had no idea if we read that on-line account. But in our hard-copy Times, Landler actually told us. The GOP has agreed to such “revenue-generating measures” as this: Federal workers will have to pay for a larger share of their pensions!

That may be a perfectly good idea, but it takes a very gentle lamb to buy the semantic claim that this would be a “revenue-generating item” rather than a “spending cut.” Presumably, some Republican got Landler’s ear and discovered that he’s such a lamb.

(Let’s continue. Presumably, some editor, seeing what Landler had wrought, knew that it had to come out of the text. This does leave his text quite Republican-friendly. But who knows how such nonsense is wrought?)

Key point: Even at the highest levels, our journalists have extremely weak technical skills. In the mid-1990s, Haley Barbour got the whole bunch of them to accept a new language—“the Speaker’s new language” (links below).

At some point in the past few days, someone devoured a new lamb.

Visit our incomparable archives: For our money, Gene Lyons’ Fools for Scandal was the most important book of the Clinton-Gore era. Next in line: Maraniss and Weisskopf’s Tell Newt to Shut Up—specifically, the chapter which described the crucial Medicare debate of the mid-1990s.

Barbour, then the RNC chair, ate the press corps for lunch. Later, Maraniss and Weisskopf did a lot of tremendous reporting about the extensive GOP effort. (This included on-the-record interviews with Barbour and other officials.) We posted three reports on the topic—short, medium, long.

To make your selection, click here.

Special report: No need to know!

PART 3—OUTLOOK GIVES IT A TRY (permalink): What has caused our massive federal deficits?

Beyond that, wouldn’t you think our biggest newspapers would have tried to explain it by now?

The federal budget lies at the heart of our current national politics. Last night, the NewsHour opened with a discussion of the fight about the federal debt ceiling—a bungled discussion we will briefly discuss on the morrow. Yesterday morning, the New York Times discussed the situation in an editorial, explaining the stakes involved in the case: “The government has barely a month to raise the debt limit or begin to default on its obligations, with potentially disastrous consequences for the economy.”

Potentially disastrous consequences? With the debt limit talks approaching meltdown, wouldn’t you think our biggest newspapers would have tried to explain the overall situation by now?

Alas! If you thought such a thing, you don’t understand the role of our modern Potemkin newspapers. Big newspapers like the Post and the Times now exist to give the illusion that journalism is being conducted. In fact, the nation’s most basic policy matters are routinely ignored by these lazy, upper-class organs.

What, us worry? these “newspapers” cry. What, us do actual journalism?

It isn’t like these famous newspapers don’t know how to create front-page spreads about important issues. In the year 2000, the Times published a six-week front-page series which purported to study “How Race is Lived in America.” The endless series showed the world how high-minded the New York Times really is. In turn, the Pulitzer committee displayed its own lofty values, crowning the Times for its effort.

The Times devoted six weeks to that series! But what has caused our current deficit problems? So far, our biggest newspapers have made little attempt to explore this crucial topic.

Although, bless its heart, a few weeks ago, Outlook did seem to try.

Outlook is the Washington Post’s frequently hapless Sunday ideas/issues section. On June 4, Outlook devoted about three-fifths of its fourth page (page B4) to a sprawling piece which bore this headline: “Votes that pushed us into the red.” Out on Outlook’s front page (page B1), the feature was teased with color photos of six members of Congress. Their head shots appeared above this eye-catching, name-calling text:

Hey big spenders!
How Congress ran up the debt. B4.

Plainly, this feature purported to explain how we reached our current state of budget imbalance. And how clever! The words “Hey big spenders” appeared in red ink! So did the number “B4!”

This sprawling feature ate up more than half of page B4. But alas! The feature mainly served one function. It showed how poorly things can turn out when our biggest newspapers try, or pretend to try, to examine real policy matters.

For the record: Using Nexis and Google and the Post’s own web site, we can find no record that this sprawling feature ever existed. We can’t link you to its text or to its sprawling graphics. We’ll settle for the best we can do: We’ll provide the feature’s complete written text, and we’ll try to describe its graphics.

Before we start, though, we will tell you this:

The feature did a miserable job explaining how we reached our current state of imbalance. But what would you expect from a Potemkin newspaper, pretty much the only kind we now have?

Let’s start with the feature’s text. Including its headline, this is the way the feature started, right at the top of page B4. The feature was sourced to Karen Yourish, Laura Stanton and Hannah Fairfield:

YOURISH ET AL (6/5/11): Votes that pushed us into the red

In the debate over the nation’s rising debt, rhetoric trumps reality.

In January 2001, the U.S. budget was balanced for the first time in decades, and the Congressional Budget Office was forecasting surpluses totaling $5.6 trillion by 2011. A decade later, the national debt is larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any time in U.S. history except for the period shortly after World War II.

So what happened?

In that passage, Yourish described a stark reversal in our fiscal fortunes. Ten years ago, the CBO was forecasting large surpluses; now, we face massive growing debt. When Yourish wrote, “So what happened?” readers might have thought that she and her colleagues were about to answer that question.

Instead, this is where the three went:

YOURISH ET AL (continuing directly): So what happened? In classic Washington style, neither party wants to take responsibility.

“Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in April.

“Republicans made the contradictory promises that cutting taxes would lead to higher revenues and would force lower spending,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) shot back in a speech in May. “They did neither.”

The reality falls somewhere in between.

Alas! Rather than try to explain “what happened,” Yourish instantly switched her field, telling us that neither party wants to take the blame. This should hardly be a surprise—and for the record, it’s always possible that neither party should be blamed. At any rate, Yourish then quoted Boehner making a standard statement—a statement in which he doesn’t even address the question of who’s to blame.

When Hoyer is quoted, he does at least address the question of blame. Hoyer blames the other party. He blames the GOP.

Hoyer is blaming the other party; is it possible that he is right? What follows is Yourish’s attempt to address that question. Where did those massive deficits come from? What follows represents the Washington Post’s attempt to answer that seminal question:

YOURISH ET AL (continuing directly): The reality falls somewhere in between. In fact, 75 percent of current members of Congress voted for at least one—and in most cases for more than one—of three policies that contributed to fully one-third of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt: President George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill.

Here’s a look at the overlapping priorities that led us to record deficits, and who voted for them.

(End of text)

That represents the Post’s full text—its full written explanation of “what happened.” That text is accompanied by a graphic which shows “The impact of three policies of the federal debt”—and by a sprawling series of diagrams showing us how many members of Congress voted for one or more of the three policies Yourish cites in her text.

Might we note a few problems?

First problem: According to Yourish, the three policies she cites “contributed to fully one-third of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt.” Somewhat comically, this means that she has made no attempt to explain two-thirds of the swing.

Two-thirds is more than one third.

Second problem: In her text, Yourish makes no attempt to report the relative size of the contributions made by the three policies she cites. From her graphic, it seems fairly clear that the Bush tax cuts contributed much more to the swing than the two wars did; similarly, it seems fairly clear that the wars contributed much more to the swing than Obama’s stimulus did. But the graphic is rather hard to interpret, and at no point does Yourish attempt to quantify this basic matter.

How much of the $12.7 trillion swing came from each of those policies? There is no attempt to say.

By the way: If the tax cuts contributed much more than the other two policies—if the tax cuts contributed much, much more than the stimulus did—does that reflect in some way on Boehner’s claim? Yourish has no comment.

In fact, Yourish made very little attempt to explain “what happened.” In that front-page tease, we were told that we would learn “How Congress ran up the debt.” But in her text and in her graphic, Yourish does a miserable job with that important task. And alas! In the vast bulk of her sprawling feature, Yourish provides large, colorful graphics showing how many members of Congress voted for one, two or all three of the three policies under review. Warning: When it comes to the wars, Yourish actually records which members “voted for at least two supplemental appropriations bills to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq during Bush’s last two years in office or Obama’s first two years.” By this measure, Bernie Sanders voted for the wars just like John McCain did. Indeed, Sanders is one of eight members of the House and Senate whose photos appear as part of this feature. In fact, Sanders is shown on pages B1 and B4. On B1, he is featured as one of six “big spenders” who “ran up the debt.”

Put aside the basic issue of who may actually be at fault. This feature represents a hapless attempt to explain “what happened.” Yourish discusses only one-third of the swing; she makes no attempt to explain the rest. And she doesn’t quantify the size of the contributions her three policies made. But any long-time “press corps” watcher will instantly see what she does accomplish: In best “press corps” fashion, she conveys a cherished idea: Both parties are at fault! Obama’s relatively small stimulus package gets lumped in with Bush’s much larger tax cuts; readers are left to study a complex graphic if they want to judge the relative size of the two policies’ contributions to the swing. But a fatuous conclusion emerges from this feature:

Neither party will take the blame! In fact, they’re both at fault!

Can we talk? You live in a society which currently has a fully Potemkin press corps. Each day, Potemkin newspapers land on the front steps of houses whose underwater mortgages are all too real. On the rare occasions when our Potemkin journalists try to explain our most pressing problems, fatuous nonsense like this will emerge. Such features will then disappear into the ether, too worthless for their own newspapers to bother retaining on-line.

By the way: Yourish was pretending to explain a massive, impending societal problem. Why did her sprawling effort get banished to page B4?

Easy! On Outlook’s front page that day, another sprawling effort held sway. Its gigantic headline said this: “As slutty as we want to be.” In a very large color photo, exciting young women were walking around in their bras! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/9/11, for more of the day’s excitement.

Do you fail to grasp the nature of all this Potemkin concern?

Tomorrow: The unexplained