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BANANA REPUBLIC PRESS CORPS! If you don’t like the facts in the New York Times, you should just wait a while: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 25, 2011

Name that Murdoch aide/The Times does: On Friday, we asked you to name the Murdoch aide who sat right behind the great man at last week’s hearing. That aide is a former Bloomberg aide; he scored his big pay-day last fall.

For the New York Times’ (wide-eyed) account, click here. More on this striking story at the end of the week.

The nature of manufactured consent: Yesterday, the silly-bills were out in force in the New York Times “Sunday Review.”

As the nation slid toward the sea, Frank Bruni wasted everyone’s time with worthless predictions about who will win the GOP nomination. Mostly, though, he frisked Michele Bachmann—or at least, he pretended.

Dumbly, he started like this:

BRUNI (7/24/11): Michele Bachmann is the gift that never stops giving.

One week she’s confusing the Iowa birthplaces of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy, two men separated by a bit more than two syllables. The next she’s signing a conservative pledge that contains language extolling the family values of slavery. Her library evidently differs from most. It stocks “Uncle Tom’s Little House on the Prairie.”

In that opening sentence, Bruni expressed the ethos of the Potemkin press corps—the chuckling belief that news events must be judged by how easy they are to write about. From there, he turned to an easy but bogus claim. Did Bachmann really “confus[e] the Iowa birthplaces of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy?” We know of no reason to think so, although it gives dumb bunnies like Bruni an easy opening laugh. (In fact, Gacy was born in Illinois. The error there is Bruni’s, weeks later.) As Bachmann later explained, without contradiction, John Wayne’s parents did live in Waterloo, Bachmann’s home town; they moved away before Wayne was born. There is no evidence that Gacy was involved in Bachmann’s pointless error. But dumb-asses must be served.

By the way: In a long, utterly pointless column about Bachmann’s headaches and alleged prospects, Bruni is too dumb to mention a highly significant fact: Bachmann has pledged that she will never vote to raise the debt limit, a truly ridiculous posture. (We’ll guess Bruni hasn’t heard.)

In this utterly pointless column, Times readers are handed a pointless laugh at Bachmann’s expense—and they’re spared from hearing about her truly ridiculous policy stance. So it goes when hambones like Bruni are handed our highest press platforms.

For our money, Nicholas Kristof was fairly silly yesterday too, although, as always, he did a better job posing.

Kristof started with a serious topic; he made a serious claim. We face a “national security threat,” he said—a threat which is coming from “our own domestic extremists:”

KRISTOF (7/24/11): House Republicans start from a legitimate concern about rising long-term debt. Politicians are usually focused only on short-term issues, so it would be commendable to see the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seriously focused on containing long-term debt. But on this issue, many House Republicans aren’t serious, they’re just obsessive in a destructive way. The upshot is that in their effort to protect the American economy from debt, some of them are willing to drag it over the cliff of default.

We’re inclined to agree with that highlighted claim, and it thrilled Steve Benen, who got busy kissing big keister. But as always, Kristof was very careful in the things he said. Most notably, he failed to name the names of those House Republicans who he described as “domestic extremists.” In this failure, he handed Bachmann her second free pass of the morning!

Should readers know that Bachmann is one of these people? Yes, they should, but Kristof is a very careful player—and careful players avoid naming names of very powerful players. Indeed, Kristof couldn’t even sustain a full column on this critical topic. Before he was done, he wasted your time with this feel-good, paint-by-the-numbers crap about the need to help low-income kids improve their reading.

In this passage, Kristof doesn’t have any idea if what he’s saying is true. Almost surely, it isn’t:

KRISTOF: While one danger to national security comes from the risk of default, another comes from overzealous budget cuts—especially in education, at the local, state and national levels. When we cut to the education bone, we’re not preserving our future but undermining it.

It should be a national disgrace that the United States government has eliminated spending for major literacy programs in the last few months, with scarcely a murmur of dissent.

Consider Reading Is Fundamental, a 45-year-old nonprofit program that has cost the federal government only $25 million annually. It’s a public-private partnership with 400,000 volunteers, and it puts books in the hands of low-income children. The program helped four million American children improve their reading skills last year. Now it has lost all federal support.

“They have made a real difference for millions of kids,” Kyle Zimmer, founder of First Book, another literacy program that I’ve admired, said of Reading Is Fundamental. “It is a tremendous loss that their federal support has been cut. We are going to pay for these cuts in education for generations.”

Did Reading is Fundamental really “help four million American children improve their reading skills last year?” More to the point, do you think Kristof has any idea if that claim is accurate? People! Of course he doesn’t! But in the second half of his column, Kristof finds a noble way to avoid naming Bachmann’s name—and he builds his second column in the past two week around fatuous, feel-good, know-nothing claims in favor of strong education.

You can write columns like that in your sleep; even Bruni could do it! People who care about low-income kids should be sickened by this rotten man’s relentless know-nothing, feel-good posturing—by this big hustler’s endless pose.

The Times op-ed columnists frittered along, with Friedman calling for a third party and Dowd off frisking the priests once again. But to gaze on the soul of manufactured consent, consider Steven Pearlstein’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Pearlstein did discuss the budget debate—and he helped manufacture consent:

PEARLSTEIN (7/24/11): Here in the United States, the urgency of the budget deficit has been apparent for five years at least. And by last December, with a newly radicalized group of Republicans taking over the House, the Senate in perpetual stalemate and a wounded center-left Democrat in the White House, it was pretty clear where the center of political gravity was to be found.

Into that breach stepped a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission with a politically and economically credible plan to right-size the Pentagon and the civilian agencies, slow the growth of entitlements and reform the tax code in a way that lowered rates while raising a modest amount of money. Budget experts agreed it was pretty much what needed to be done.

Yet the only ones willing to accept that obvious reality were a bipartisan gang of six brave senators whose efforts got a cold shoulder from the same president and House speaker who just in the past several weeks were willing to acknowledge it was the way to go. By that time, however, the momentum had been lost and positions hardened to the point that reasonable compromise now appears impossible. Treasury can probably kiss its triple-A rating goodbye.

Referring to the Simpson-Bowles commission, Pearlstein said it was “obvious” that we need to “reform the tax code in a way that lower[s] rates while raising a modest amount of money.” A person may think that’s the right way to go—but what on earth makes it “obvious?” Given the massive growth of income at the top of the income scale; given the historically low rates of taxation visited on the highest earners; given the size of projected deficits; why would someone thing it was “obvious” that we need to lower rates, thus producing modest amounts of new revenue? Why couldn’t someone think that we need to “reform the tax code in a way that raises a substantial amount of money, especially from the highest earners?”

Many people do think that, of course—but their views will rarely appear in the upper-end press corps. Readers will rarely hear that such policies are even an option. This is how press corps elites manufacture consent. They simply air-brush options away, not unlike Brother Stalin.

As Pearlstein helped manufacture consent, Bruni was clowning around about Bachmann and Kristof was playing things very safe. (He favors the interests of low-income kids.) No one mentioned this manufactured consent and none of these tools ever will.

Special report: Banana republic press corps!

PART 1—JUST WAIT A WHILE (permalink): We know exactly what you said when you read yesterday’s New York Times:

“Our DAILY HOWLER keeps getting results!” We could almost hear you say it!

We appreciate your kind remarks. But we’ll have to dispute your judgment a tad, in a few basic ways.

Presumably, you offered your kind remarks when you read this piece by Teresa Tritch—a piece which was described in the “Today’s Paper” listing as a “Deconstruction.”

To her credit, Tritch asked a blindingly obvious question. This is the way she began:

TRITCH (7/24/11): How the Deficit Got This Big

With President Obama and Republican leaders calling for cutting the budget by trillions over the next 10 years, it is worth asking how we got here—from healthy surpluses at the end of the Clinton era, and the promise of future surpluses, to nine straight years of deficits, including the $1.3 trillion shortfall in 2010. The answer is largely the Bush-era tax cuts, war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recessions.

Really? With the nation pretending to conduct a discussion about our raging federal deficits, “it is worth asking how we got here?” Of course it’s worth asking how we got here—how we moved from those recent surpluses to our current massive shortfalls.

Three cheers for Tritch for asking this question! It should have been done long ago.

If you had a real press corps instead of a Potemkin replacement, detailed reporting on this obvious topic would have appeared long ago; such reporting would have appeared on the New York Times front page. But judging from what she wrote in that passage, Tritch seemed to think that she was exploring an important new question—a question New York Times readers hadn’t seen thrashed out before.

We’d say Tritch was basically right in that apparent judgment. And omigod! As she continued, she finally let Times readers encounter a few basic facts! By the time she finished her short report, Tritch was letting her readers ponder a startling fact:

TRITCH: A few lessons can be drawn from the numbers. First, the Bush tax cuts have had a huge damaging effect. If all of them expired as scheduled at the end of 2012, future deficits would be cut by about half, to sustainable levels.

Tritch makes a remarkable statement here. If we return to the Clinton-era tax rates, she says, “future deficits would be cut by about half, to sustainable levels.”

In recent weeks, we’ve suggested that this is one of the topics which should have been covered, long before this, on the nation’s front pages. Presumably, that’s why you gave us credit for Tritch’s long-overdue piece. Question: How many readers of the Times have ever heard that remarkable fact? Next question: Why did they have to wait till now to acquire this information—if it really is information, and if they bothered reading Tritch’s “Deconstruction” at all?

We think this piece was long overdue. Having said that, we’ll note three problems with it. Let’s start with an obvious question: Who is Teresa Tritch?

Who is Teresa Tritch: Who the heck is Teresa Tritch? We’ll admit we didn’t know her name when we saw yesterday’s piece. And indeed: According to the Nexis archives, this was just the third time her name has ever appeared in a New York Times by-line. Her previous by-lined efforts appeared in 2006 and 2007. (Based on letters to the editor, Nexis seems to have missed an earlier piece from 1999.)

Who the heck is Teresa Tritch? As it turns out, Tritch is a member of the Times editorial board—sixteen people whose names the New York Times doesn’t bruit all around. As far as we know, Tritch is a highly capable person; you can read her official bio here, along with those of her fifteen colleagues on the board. But unless you know just where to look, it isn’t real easy to find that page at the New York Times web site. Don’t waste your time with the obvious searches! If you enter “editorial board” or “masthead,” you won’t be led to those names!

Who the heck is Teresa Tritch? We think the Times should have said.

Where did Tritch’s piece appear: Tritch’s piece did not appear as a front-page news report (or news analysis). Indeed, it didn’t appear in the New York Times’ news pages at all. Instead, it appeared on page 11 of yesterday’s “Sunday Review” section, clustered there with the day’s editorials. On-line, the piece is officially branded as a “DECONSTRUCTION/EDITORIAL.”

Essentially, this seems to be the type of signed piece the Times used to publish under the somewhat puzzling name, “Editorial observer.”

Tritch’s piece didn’t appear in the paper’s news pages. As usual, you had to turn to the Times editorial page to encounter a few basic facts. But alas! This brings us to our most basic question:

Tritch makes a striking factual claim. Is her claim accurate?

Is Tritch’s claim accurate: In a rational world, citizens would have been told, long ago, about the role the Bush tax cuts have played in creating our current deficits. As a basic point of reference, they would have been told, long ago, about the likely effects of returning to the Clinton-era rates. That wouldn’t necessarily mean the Bush tax rates should be dumped; it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the Clinton-era rates should be restored. But it would give readers a basic framework for approaching two blindingly obvious questions: How did we ever get to this place? And how might we get the current problem under control?

So how about it? Is Tritch’s claim accurate? Would a return to the Clinton tax rates “cut future deficits by about half?” In a rational world, this would have been explored long ago, perhaps as part of a large series, out on the New York Times front page. It would have been hashed out in some detail, resolving possible contradictions.

Sadly, we mention those “possible contradictions” for an obvious reason. As we noted just last week, the Times’ David Leonhardt made a substantially different claim about this matter less than two weeks ago. Like Tritch, Leonhardt explained what would happen if the Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled. But doggone it! What’s a poor Times reader to do? Leonhardt gave a different account of what would happen:

LEONHARDT (7/13/11): So what kind of tax increases do Americans support? The old-fashioned kind. Seventy-two percent support raising taxes on income above $250,000, according to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, and a large majority likewise favor raising Social Security taxes on the affluent.

In the end, the most likely tax increase may be the one that's already on the books. On Jan. 1, 2013, all the Bush tax cuts—on the affluent and nonaffluent alike—are set to expire, which would solve roughly one-quarter of our long-term deficit problem. If Republicans have their way, all the tax cuts will be extended. If the Democrats have their way, most of them will be.

Tritch said future deficits “would be cut by about half.” Leonhardt seemed to say that they’d be cut by one quarter. That is a rather large difference.

As we noted last week, we were a bit surprised by Leonhardt’s claim. We thought we’d seen on-line reports that the Clinton tax rates would solve more of our long-term problem. But in this peculiar contretemps, you see the soul of Times “news coverage.” You see a problem which confronts every Times subscriber.

Tritch sits on the Times editorial board. Leonhardt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Within eleven days, they gave significantly different accounts of this relatively basic matter. And as far as we know, this obvious question hasn’t been examined in the paper’s news pages at all!

It’s like the old joke about New England—if you don’t like the weather, just wait a while! But so it goes at our greatest newspaper when it comes to essential facts. This pattern has obtained for a very long time—and it has obtained all through the recent coverage of the debt limit crisis.

By and large, there are no facts in the New York Times—just changing patterns of weather. Typically, such “journalism” would be seen in a banana republic press corps.

Tomorrow—part 2: If you don’t like the editors’ data, just wait till the next day!