The Washington Post: Always Fighting the Wrong War

Richard Eskow

The Washington Post has an uncanny knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, pushing the wrong policies and making the wrong moves. That’s four wrongs in once sentence, and four wrongs don’t make a right – unless you’re talking about “right”-wing bias. But here’s the good news: They’ve given me an idea that’ll make a million bucks.

It’s not just their opinions or their reporting that are off-base. It’s their timing, too. Two of their latest moves – outsourcing their financial reporting to a wealthy conservative ideologue and endorsing an unpopular policy – could leave the paper struggling to retain its credibility.

The Post’s December 31 edition ran a “news article” about the Federal deficit that was actually written by an external organization called the Fiscal Times. They plan to use this outside group for all their financial reporting. The “Fiscal Times” is owned and operated by billionaire Pete Peterson, an antitax conservative ideologically opposed to government spending. And guess what? The “Fiscal Times” reporters found nobody who supports continued overnment spending – although more than forty organizations do – and a whole lot of people who want it cut.

In fairness, those anti-spending types weren’t hard to find: They were already on Pete Peterson’s Rolodex. He gives money to support most of them. Economist and veteran press watcher Dean Baker said he considered this outsourcing a signal that the Post “is no longer a serious newspaper.” (Roger Hickey provides more details on this venture here.)

You’d think the Post would have learned its lesson by now. Back in July it was widely condemned for its plan to hosts “salons” where patrons would pay up to $25,000 for the right to hobnob with government decision-makers and Post staff. That gave the appearance of letting people pay to influence both policy and Post coverage, which is why its own ombudsman called the move “an ethical lapse of monumental proportions.”

So, rather than sell influence, the Post simply outsourced an entire segment of its newsroom to an ideologically-driven third party. (Aren’t readers entitled to know the terms of that deal?) But look on the bright side: The good news is that you can’t pay to influence Peterson’s coverage: He doesn’t need the money, and he can’t
be influenced because he’s already made up his mind.

The Post’s newsroom has also been accused of downplaying stories that contradicted its editorial support for the invasion of Iraq – support so extreme and jingoistic that the paper was compelled to respond to the backlash in print back in 2003. But they were still at it in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Are we seeing the same sad conflation of editorial policy and newsroom behavior on health reform? They’ve already demonstrated bias in their reporting on this issue, as when the paper incorrectly reported that activist Adam Green supporting the public option couldn’t muster a single argument in favor of his position (a statement Green
called “ridiculous“). And this week, using its customary combination of incomplete information and bad timing, the paper published an editorial on a subject close to my heart: the so-called Cadillac tax on high cost health plans.

The article is entitled “Will President Obama Defend the ‘Cadillac Tax’ To Cut Costs.” Writers, take note: It’s a well-crafted title, especially because all of Washington knew that the President was negotiating to ease the burden of the tax even as the editorial went to press. The use of the word “defend” suggests that it would be “surrender” – that is to say, “weak” – for him to show flexibility. Likewise, their use of the phrase “cut costs” implies that, despite the lack of any supporting data, it is a cost-cutting measure.

The editors rehash the same tired arguments that have been refuted so many times already – that it “reduce the over-consumption of health care,” that a 13% difference for older workers is fair (then why does the Senate bill allow insurance companies to charge three times as much for the same people?), yada yada yada. (For more detailed rebuttal of these empty positions, see “Jonathan Chait’s Endless Love” and other pieces at No Middle Class Health Tax).

The Post is highly selective and misleading in its use of information here, and not for the first time. It has has allowed George Will to print falsehoods in his editorials, and has often ignored refuting information when presenting its opinions. They’ve always defended this behavior by saying editorials are opinions, not journalism. But readers don’t expect papers to twist the truth anywhere in their pages, and they deserve be told of the many studies (originally 18, now more) contradicting the Post’s assertions about the tax.

But what’s most striking about this editorial is it’s bad timing. Once again, the editors are chasing a train that’s already left the station. There’s very little disagreement left about the fact that the age and gender impact of the bill would be discriminatory, so why defend them now? Just to give the President another headache? It’s certainly not to provide new insights on health policy, because they offer none.

“When life gives you lemons,” the old saying goes, “make lemonade.” So here’s my million-dollar idea: If the Post will outsource financial reporting to an anti-spending conservative, why wouldn’t they outsource their health reform reporting to … insurance companies? I figure I can get ten big insurers on board for a million each – hey, they’re spending that much every day on lobbying – and then become the Washington Post’s bureau chief for health reform reporting. I think I’ll call it “Insurance Times.”

But I better act fast: Once this bill gets passed I’ll have to find another industry to back my venture, which could change journalism forever. Oh, I forgot – there’s always the war. Does anybody have the phone number for Halliburton’s CEO?

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