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July 15, 2005

Our Political Press: A Bunch of Stenographers?

Let me pick a small bone with what Matthew Yglesias writes about the Washington press corps

TPMCafe || Ooo! Questions!: In my experience, a lot of blogospheric commentary on the media grants the reporters who write these stories all too much agency. Insofar as I've had any conversations with people who cover the White House, or even conversations with people who work with people who cover the White House, this is a group of pretty sharp people who have a pretty good grasp of what's going on. It just isn't reflected in their stories. Not because they secretly love George W. Bush or pray to Dick Cheney idols in the corners of their bedrooms but because they define their job in a very narrow, rather misguided kind of way.

The Bush team has gotten remarkable good press because they understand the mechanism by which newspaper political coverage is generated and have successfully devised means of systematically manipulating that mechanism. Editors and reporters have it in their power, of course, to change the way the mechanism works (and they should do it!), but they're not going to wake up one day and do it just because they're mad at Karl Rove.

The issues here, fundamentally, run much deeper than the subjective attitudes of the press corps vis-à-vis the White House. It has to do with the conception of journalism as primarily a stenographic activity, concerned with duly recording official statements and, perhaps, balancing those statements with contradictory quotations from official or quasi-official members of the opposition....

I disagree. I think that the press does have considerable agency--that it is not acting as a stenographer, but as an unindicted co-conspirator with the Slime Machine. Let me give two examples.

The first comes from the Washington Post, a quote from a story by Mike Allen published on January 11, 2004 on page A-13:

O'Neill: Plan to Hit Iraq Began Pre-9/11: A senior administration official said O'Neill's "suggestion that the administration was planning an invasion of Iraq days after taking office is laughable. Nobody listened to him when he was in office. Why should anybody now?"

Here Mike Allen isn't being a stenographer--isn't taking down what his sources are saying in their normal course. Allen is... taking dictation of a poison-pen letter: printing something that his source does not dare say in his own proper persona, for attribution. He's not a victim. He's an active co-conspirator.

The second example also comes from the Washington Post, a story by Jonathan Weisman and Ben White, "Bush's Social Security Plan Assumes Much from Stocks," printed on page E1 on February 9, 2005. It is one that I know extremely well indeed.

Weisman and White write about the Bush administration's claim that its private-accounts proposals are a good deal for beneficiaries because expected real stock returns are 6.5% per year. Weisman and White write of:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A9090-2005Feb8?language=printer: a heated debate among economists, who divide sharply between those who believe the stock market cannot meet the president's expectations and those who say investor demand from a faster-growing developing world will keep stock prices rising...

Which economists? On my side--the side of those who believe that slow projected growth and high projected equity returns are inconsistent^--Weisman and White list a whole bunch of us.

And on the other side? They have Social Security actuary Steve Goss. They have "Bush's Council of Economic Advisers... [which] predicted that gains from the stock market, over the long term, will continue to be healthy." And they have unnamed "White House economists [who] say [DeLong's] calculations are absurd because they ignore global economic growth and investment in countries unaffected by the demographic slowdown." Only those who work for Bush endorse the administration's 6.5% projected equity return.

Moreover, even their endorsement is--call it qualified. I've been told that people would appreciate it if I were careful and drew a distinction: "say that the executive branch accepts the 6.5% forecast of the Social Security actuary, but don't say that the executive branch made the forecast." And whatever White House economist says that our calculations are "absurd"--well, he won't say it to our faces--or even with his name attached--perhaps because claiming in public that bad news about economic growth is not bad news about stock returns is a seriously career-limiting move.

Thus once again we have Washington Post reporters who do not fit inside the box of "stenographer." Presumably Bush's White House economists drew the same distinctions talking to Weisman and White that they did talking to me--that they accept the 6.5% forecast but do not endorse it. That's why Weisman and White say that the CEA projects that stock returns "will continue to be healthy" and don't say that the CEA projects that real stock returns will average the 6.5% per year assumed in the Social Security plan. You have to read carefully to notice that the CEA and Steve Goss are not aligned: that's not stenography. And, once again, there's the poison-pen element: if Weisman and White had asked to attach a name to the quote, they wouldn't have gotten the word "absurd" into the article. That's not stenography either.

So I don't think that Matthew Yglesias is correct in saying that the Washington political press corps goes astray because they conceive of journalism as primarily a stenographic activity. Stenographers do not write in a code ("continue to be healthy") that only those who read their morning papers with Talmudic intensity will crack. Stenographers do not take poison-pen dictation. Stenographers do not conspire with sources to juice up their stories at the expense of telling things as they really happened.

Say corruption or cynicism or editorial pressure for sizzle or laziness or apathy. Don't say "stenography."


^For the current last word on this, see http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2005-3_archives/001192.html and http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/pdf/BDK-BPEA_20050629.pdf

Posted by DeLong at July 15, 2005 11:32 AM