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January 14, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Elizabeth Bumiller Edition)

This one outsourced to Thomas Lang of the weblog formerly known as CJR Campaign Desk:

CJR Campaign Desk: Archives:Straying from her regular beat... New York Times White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller this morning tackled a piece on the administration's proposal to overhaul Social Security. It didn't turn out well.

Let's start from the top. In the second paragraph, Bumiller quotes President Bush arguing, "If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20's, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now." Unfortunately for Bumiller, the president's hypothetical turns out to bear no relation to reality. I'll volunteer as a guinea pig to test the president's construction: If I retire at age 65, it will be in the year 2046. If the Congressional Budget Office is correct, that will still be six years before the Social Security system finds itself with less money than it is required to pay out. (By contrast, the Social Security program's actuaries estimate that by 2042 the system will only be able to pay out around 70 percent of promised benefits.) In either case, the Social Security system will be far from "flat bust" or "bankrupt."

Bumiller handles these uncomfortable facts deeper in the story, writing, "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." (Italics added.) As we just pointed out, the system will be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now. This is fact, not conjecture, and not tenuous political rhetoric. But instead of laying it out as fact, Bumiller hides behind the coattails of "Mr. Bush's critics."

Here, we call it "reportorial authority," and it doesn't require finding unnamed "critics" to hide behind. In this case, it requires nothing more than going to nonpartisan sources like the CBO, or Social Security's actuaries, to ascertain the veracity of a provocative statement uttered by a partisan. Now, if the president hadn't made it abundantly clear over the past month that he was embarking on a huge PR blitz to sell the idea that Social Security is in crisis and action must be taken now, then Bumiller might have an excuse for getting caught off guard. But, as she herself acknowledges later on in the piece, "[t]he event was part of an intensified White House campaign to promote Mr. Bush's Social Security proposals this month."

So, given that he has identified himself as a pitchman on this issue, doesn't it make sense to fact-check every word that comes out of the president's mouth on the subject of Social Security? If Bumiller wants to walk into the lion's den, she ought to gird herself beforehand with the armor of facts -- because it's lunchtime, and the lion has already announced that he is hungry.

What Lang does not seem to grasp, however, is that while he regards Bumiller's story as a failure, Bumiller and her editors regard it as a success. Bumiller believes that her job is to tell her readers what George W. Bush said, and leave some space at the end to say what Bush's critics said, and to then stop. Her job is not, she believes, to critically assess what Bush says and to point out where Bush is lying. That would, she believes (and her editors believe), be a violation of journalistic "objectivity."

Posted by DeLong at January 14, 2005 12:54 PM

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Here's a whopper from CJRDaily in reference to Bumiller's article on Social Security in the New York Times: "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 b... [Read More]

Tracked on January 18, 2005 12:36 PM

Comments

Wimblehack!

Posted by: Grant at January 14, 2005 01:18 PM


"Bumiller believes that her job is to tell her readers what George W. Bush said, and leave some space at the end to say what Bush's critics said, and to then stop."

Would this be lazy equivalence?

Posted by: Alison at January 14, 2005 01:38 PM


Good ole "he said she said."

Posted by: liberal at January 14, 2005 01:41 PM


High-prestige assignments like White House correspondent actually require little in the way of journalistic skill or enterprise. Even when good journalists get the gig, and they often do, they end up doing Bumiller-esque stenography. Why not send the rookies to the White House pressroom and put the real journalists on real stories, where, for example, the reporter digs and determines what is actually true rather than what some politician says?
By the way, is there an economic explanation for this, or for the similar practice of paying enormous sums to capable journalists to read copy, which can be done better and cheaper by actors?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci at January 14, 2005 02:08 PM


The disastrous American invention of "journalistic objectivity" has been causing immesurable harm for decades. In the early 90s, The New York Times was bending over backwards to show that Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic and the neighbors they were attacking shared the responsibility for the war exactly 50-50. And in the decade before that, it was quite similar with Saddam Hussein and his neighbors - until the day United States suddenly decided to stop him.

Posted by: enfant terrible at January 14, 2005 02:23 PM


The Daily Show did a segment on journalists' responsibility last summer, making exactly Brad's point (but funnier). Maybe I'll be able to find it.

Posted by: Brian S. at January 14, 2005 02:26 PM


The he-said, she-said, lazy thinking problem is there, of course, and oft-talked about. But here I see another issue, deeper while more narrow.

Here, we call it "reportorial authority," and it doesn't require finding unnamed "critics" to hide behind. In this case, it requires nothing more than going to nonpartisan sources like the CBO, or Social Security's actuaries, to ascertain the veracity of a provocative statement uttered by a partisan.

CJR seems to be implying that Bumiller should have a list of of trusted, nonpartisan sources to borrow "authority" from, and be able to state their findings flatly, instead of trying to attribute them to faceless critics. This is true, especially in this case, when we have the most boring and bureaucratic of nonpartisian sources to NOT quote. In general I think reporters might have a skewed sense of who is trustworthy and who is not--and the real root of that is a lack of their own sense of authority. At some level a reporter has to be able to read a boring, long, technical financial document and say, with their own authority, and say a flat out statement, unattributed and unmodulated, based on their observations. The unwillingness of many high-end journalists to make flat out statements about anything other than physical events they have seen themselves indicates a very deep unwillingness to grapple with complicated, mathematical information without a guide.

Posted by: Saheli at January 14, 2005 02:38 PM


Daily Howler is also on the case of this abomination, that CBO + SSA = "Mr Bush's critics"

Posted by: P O'Neill at January 14, 2005 02:40 PM


Her job is not, she believes, to critically assess what Bush says and to point out where Bush is lying. That would, she believes (and her editors believe), be a violation of journalistic "objectivity."
As Josh Marshall pointed out a long time ago, Bush is our first fully postmodern president. His journalistic enablers are right there with them; the mass media has abandoned any notion of objective reality for what I'd call "discursive objectivity." There are no facts about the world to be found. There are only statements about the world, which can be juxtaposed, but never measured against experience.

Posted by: Brian Zimmerman at January 14, 2005 03:14 PM


"...four decades from now, when baby boomers have long retired." Four decades from now not only will boomers be long retired, most of them will be long dead and off the rolls.

Posted by: JackM at January 14, 2005 03:17 PM


The CBO and the SS actuaries are "nonpartisan sources"? Since when? The Republicans run Congress and the Executive Branch.

The reality is that it is Republican actuaries, not "Bush critics," who are the source of the figures that Bush lies about.

Posted by: joe at January 14, 2005 04:09 PM


We must take it upon ourselves to educate Ms. Bumiller et al at the Ministry of Information (NYT). Anybody, what's her email address?

Posted by: ken melvin at January 14, 2005 04:17 PM


Reading articles like this, it's not hard to figure out why Bush won the election. Reporters are either too lazy or too stupid to find out what the actual truth is. The Right Wing Noise Machine (the Mighty Wurlitzer) has used this weakness to spread disinformation to the public. That conservatives still scream, "liberal bias!" really blows my mind.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at January 14, 2005 04:42 PM


People in their 20's just starting work are smart enough to know the current deal stinks. in return for giving the government 1/8 of their income for their entire working life they will receive, beginning at age 67.5, an income barely above poverty level until they die. If they die young, the government keeps the money if they have never married. In no case are they allowed to pass this legacy onto their dependants, other than as a small "survivor benefit" if they are under 21.
My money's on W in this fight.
I would challenge any professor of economics to trade their current retirement package for SS. Any takers?

Posted by: Terry at January 15, 2005 05:55 AM


Terry,
Either you are "one of them" or you are just the kind of foll that is easily persuaded by these false arguments.
You don't get it.
You don't get exactly what you put in.
It is called a social contract for a reason.
They gave to the previous generation and you give to theirs.
In return you will get some when yu need it, unless all the young folks drop out and THUS bankrupt the system.
What then ?
Then your taxes will eventually increase, either to take care of old folks with no dough, or to euthanize (sic) them.
And don't be so stupid. No one would trade their decent retirement benefits acquired from and employer for SS.
But wake up, lots of people don't have any retirement plan from their employer and do not make enough to put together a decent account or 401k or anything. They also don't know how.
Follow Bush's plan and get ready for homeless parents of 2030.

Posted by: Jim A. Sherman at January 15, 2005 08:26 AM


Terry wrote, "People in their 20's just starting work are smart enough to know the current deal stinks."

Not nearly as bad as the deal regarding extraction of Ricardian land rents is:
http://geolib.pair.com/essays/sullivan.dan/royallib.html
http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/tma68/geo-faq.htm

Posted by: liberal at January 15, 2005 12:58 PM



Terry wrote:
"in return for giving the government 1/8 of their income for their entire working life they will receive, beginning at age 67.5, an income barely above poverty level until they die."

Nope, that's far from all they get.

In addition to disability insurance and survivor benefits, they get something that I happen to think is extrememly valuable: tens of millions of elderly people will be kept out of poverty in their golden years.

You know, Terry, those same folks who paid for your education after they no longer had any children and so got "nothing" for their money.

Keerist, what a self-centered view of the world. It's a common one, though.

Posted by: Ottnott at January 15, 2005 03:09 PM


Jim A. Sherman wrote:
"Either you are "one of them" or you are just the kind of foll that is easily persuaded by these false arguments.
You don't get it."

Funny how you've figured out my financial situation from a single short post. I know exactly how much I've payed into SS, and how much someone of my expected lifespan will get out of the system. I will receive less than I put in. I will get a return of slightly less than 0% if there's anything left in the system after the boomers are through with it. At the age when I can retire with full benefits from SS I will have payed into the system for over fifty years 1/10 to 1/8 of every dollar I've ever made and I get a negative return. Thank you, uncle sam.

"They gave to the previous generation and you give to theirs.
In return you will get some when yu need it . . ."

Wrong. Social security surpluses (about 100 billion this year) are not distributed to the anybody's grandparents. The money is added to general revenue and used to finance other government programs. Some of the social security surplus is being used to finance, among other things, the current war in Iraq. If I was only taxed to pay the benefits to current retirees I would pay about 10.5% FICA rather than 12.4%.
"Follow Bush's plan and get ready for homeless parents of 2030."
I'll be over 70 years old in 2030 & thinking about how much nicer my retirement would be if the 300k+ I've put into SS had been in T bills instead.

Posted by: Terry at January 15, 2005 09:22 PM


Ottnott wrote:
"In addition to disability insurance and survivor benefits, they get something that I happen to think is extrememly valuable: tens of millions of elderly people will be kept out of poverty in their golden years."
If someone is in their 20's their death & survivor benefit, should they need it, will be far less than poverty level. They haven't paid enough into the system yet. SS is a horrible deal for almost anyone in their 20's.
As far as "they get something that I happen to think is extremely valuable: tens of millions of elderly people will be kept out of poverty in their golden years" I'll leave aside that you think the 20-somethings should pay for what you, personally, view as a laudable goal. I happen to agree with you about your desired ends. Why do you think the current SS system is the best way to achieve this? This is a simplistic argument but I think it makes an important point about how SS looks after the elderly: I'm sure you know that the stock market is up 1000% since the early-mid 70's. If the people retiring now had put their FICA contribution into an index fund they would not only be kept out poverty in their golden years, they'd be freakin' millionares.

Posted by: Terry at January 15, 2005 09:56 PM


Liberal-
Interesting essay but a little too "libertarian inside baseball" for me.
"http://geolib.pair.com/essays/sullivan.dan/royallib.html"

Posted by: Terry at January 15, 2005 10:11 PM


Terry,

Thanks for the kind reply.

It's not libertarian inside baseball, per se.

I myself am *not* a libertarian; I cite those pages because they're extremely well written.

The point I'm making is that if someone thinks they're getting screwed by the social contract represented by Social Security, they're *really* getting screwed by the social contract represented by laws governing land ownership and taxation.

You say you calculate a slightly less than 0% return on your SS taxes. Suppose you're not inheriting land from anyone. What return are you getting from government allowing Ricardian land rents (a reasonable estimate is 15% of GDP per year) to be privately captured?

For example, you pay rent (in the conventional, colloquial sense) to a landowner (the majority of real estate costs are capitalized land rent, not capital investments in strucures), or you pay a landowner to acquire his land. What have they done for you (or anyone else, for that matter) in order to be allowed to extort from you a toll for access to land, a resources created by no one, provided by nature?

Posted by: liberal at January 16, 2005 11:14 AM


“... have they done for you (or anyone else, for that matter) in order to be allowed to extort from you a toll for access to land, a resources created by no one, provided by nature?”

So when I make a bid to buy a house should I deduct the cost of the land? What is your remedy for the problem of Ricardian rents?

Posted by: A. Zarkov at January 16, 2005 11:38 AM


Remember that Lizzie Bumlicker did not take her White House standards to the Democratic primary debates, where she accosted John Kerry several times.

She's also on the record as having been struck dumb with awe and nervousness in the company of C-Plus Augustus. What a fine example of journalism.

Posted by: ahem at January 16, 2005 07:39 PM


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