fresh voices from the front lines of change







This week Leonard Downie, the former Executive Editor of the Washington Post, attacked blogs in general and the Huffington Post specifically, saying they’re “parasites” who live off “journalism produced by others.” His comment would have carried more weight if Downie’s old newspaper still produced all its own journalism, instead of outsourcing a portion of its reporting function to a bureau funded by a special interest group. (See correction/clarification, below.)

Downie’s comment about blogs whose “opinions reflecting a predictable point of view on the left or the right of the political spectrum” unfortunately also applies to his former employer. This slant is most unforgivable in its news coverage, given that paper’s claim of journalistic objectivity. In fact, the Post’s coverage of Social Security and the budget deficit makes it the poster child for media outlets who are accelerating their own demise by compromising their professional standards in the pursuit of leaner business models.

It’s not news that there’s a highly-funded campaign to cut Social Security, primarily by manipulating the public into thinking the program’s in an urgent financial crisis. (See here and here, for starters.) A lot of politicians in Washington want to go along with this idea, but they have a problem: Voters hate it. A “bipartisan” consensus to cut the program, either by reducing benefits or increasing the retirement age, would amount to a suicide pact between politicians of both parties.

How do politicians and their benefit-cutting benefactors handle that? By concealing their true intentions long enough to change public opinion. One of the best ways to do that is through compliant press organs who keep pumping out misinformation and prefabricated talking points. That’s where the new Post comes in (Washington, not Huffington).

Campaign for America’s Future co-director Roger Hickey explained how the Washington Post outsourced its entire financial division to the “Fiscal Times,” a “news” operation financed by Pete Peterson. Peterson’s the right-wing billionaire best known for his views on Social Security (cut it), the deficit (slash it), and taxes (he doesn’t want to pay ’em). As Hickey noted, the very first article produced for the Post was headlined “support grows for reducing the nation’s debt,” and only presented opinions that aligned with Peterson’s. Economist Dean Baker pointed out that the article falsely stated that social spending costs were “skyrocketing.” Even worse, it cited people who work for institutions that Peterson finances without noting a conflict of interest.

The dictionary definition of a “parasite” is “an organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.” Actually, blogs drive readers to newspapers, which should increase ad revenue and therefore contribute to their survival. And to me that definition of “parasite” more closely suits a billionaire who doesn’t want to pay his full share of taxes – but then, anybody who reads me knows they’re getting a political opinion and not unfiltered news. (Apparently parasite also means “a professional dinner guest, especially in ancient Greece,” but I’m not enough of a Washington insider to think of an appropriate Sally Quinn joke.)

Peterson was also a major backer of the President’s Deficit Commission, which we now learn has a “heavy tilt” toward spending cuts rather than tax increases – which presumably includes tax increases for billionaires. Quelle surprise.

On the other hand, politicians aren’t insane. They can tell which way the wind blows, as Dave Johnson observed. The Democratic Party is trying to emphasize Social Security as a campaign issue, while in many cases giving itself wiggle room for a post-election deal. A number of Congressional Democrats are signing a pledge to oppose any cuts, Sens. Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders are introducing a “sense of the Senate resolution” to oppose any cuts and encourage lifting the cap on payroll taxes.

That leaves the anti-Social Security crowd in stealth mode, attempting to camouflage their intentions with confusing or indirect language. Alice Rivlin, an economist known for her longstanding advocacy of Social Security cuts, suggested this week that this a “convenient time” to push benefit reductions and along with some (presumably symbolic) revenue increases. “The only better time to fix Social Security than this year,” said Rivlin, “is last year or the year before.” She added: “The stars are aligned.” That may be the most inaccurate astrological reading since Jeanne Dixon predicted the Beatles would die in a plane crash in 1964.

“Fix” Social Security? Yeah, yeah, yeah. It sounds reasonable enough – until you realize that Rivlin has a history of using that phrase as a euphemism for cutting it.

The Republicans who are pushing the hardest for cuts have suddenly gone vague, as in their pledge to require “a full accounting of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, setting benchmarks for these programs and reviewing them regularly and preventing the expansion of unfunded liabilities.” When it comes to public opinion, they’re running scared and could use some help.

Enter the Washington Post, which published an article today that said the GOP plan lacked specifics, and then gave three examples – all benefit cuts – of ways to fulfill the Pledge’s inchoate directive. A reader wouldn’t know from reading this article that revenue increases, like the simple act of raising the payroll tax cup, would also ensure that Social Security never has “unfunded liabilities.” Dean Baker dissected the column further, but that’s the main takeaway.

As someone who’s worked in freelance journalism, I’m actually quite sympathetic to Downie’s concerns. But get with the program, man! While it’s not perfect, the Huffington Post is actually hiring journalists. The Washington Post is laying them off and outsourcing their jobs to ideologues. Downie’s wrath is misdirected. The news industry is in crisis, but we can’t fix it by selling journalistic integrity to the highest bidder.

The Washington Post has some great people on staff, including one of the blogging world’s most effective and informative writers, Ezra Klein. Ezra’s an excellent example of the way advocacy writing and journalism can be integrated online (even if we’ve differed here and there). And yet part of his effectiveness comes from the fact that he often does exactly what the Huffington Post does – he “aggregates” stories and comments on them.

People who come to the Huffington Post expect to see the news reported – and “aggregated” – with a political slant. People who read the Washington Post expect objective journalism. When it comes to Social Security, whose readers are getting a raw deal? I share Len Downie’s concerns, but he should be focusing his attention somewhere a little closer to home.

CLARIFICATION: This piece as originally written stated that the Post had “outsourced an entire news department to a special interest group.” That was incorrect: The paper does, in fact, still have reporters on the financial beat. Here are the specifics: The first Post/Fiscal Times article was published on December 31, 2009 (the highly slanted “nation’s debt” piece cited above), after the partnership was announced on December 17. The Post’s own ombudsman found the story slanted (“not sufficiently balanced”), chided the paper for a “lack of transparency,” and agreed that the timing of it was “problematic, coming weeks before the Senate may consider the (Debt) commission idea.”

The timing was also troubling for other reasons. The Post cut a reported 10-12 positions the month before this relationship was announced, after conducting its fourth round of employee buyouts the previous March and closing its book review section that February. (The wave of layoffs began in 2006 with a reduction of approximately 80 journalists’ jobs, about 9% of its reportorial staff.)

The above is reason for concern, and the fundamental questions about the Post/Fiscal Times relationship remain. Nevertheless, our original statement was incorrect and is hereby retracted with apologies.


(Conflict of interest note: I frequently write for the Huffington Post, but am not paid by them – see, I told you they weren’t perfect. I am a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and support policies that can ensure Social Security’s solvency without resorting to benefit cuts. Such policies exist, even if they are not immediately visible to the readers of the Washington Post.)

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