I’ve seen the media misbehave in my time. Indeed, in just the last six months I watched Rathergate and Easongate expose the Old Media as a deceptive dinosaur in drastic need of reform. And speaking of reform, the media’s coverage of the ensuing Social Security debate has been at least as diabolical as those other two scandals. Call it Social Security-gate. Or something.
The two worst offenders have been the New York Times and the Washington Post. Indeed, almost like the seesaw battles of the old Lakers and Celtic matchups, these two opinion leader rags appear to be one-upping each other, or one-downing each other, as the case may be. That the Times should be so irresponsible in their coverage of President Bush’s chief domestic priority is no shock. The Post‘s imprudence is a bit of a surprise, because the Post has remained remarkably open-minded about personal retirement accounts on its editorial page. Nevertheless, it was in the news pages of the Post where the first deceptive blow was struck.
The Post got the ball rolling on February 3 with a bogus description of President George W. Bush’s plan to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll tax into personal retirement accounts. Jonathan Weisman, the Post reporter who wrote the story, described a “clawback” scheme in which the government could dip into your personal retirement account to keep their own books balanced. It was an astonishing assertion by Weisman considering President Bush has publicly disavowed “clawbacks” and anyway had not yet articulated the details of his plan. (He still hasn’t.)
By 1 p.m. the same day, Weisman had corrected the article on the Post‘s website. But the Post never changed the headline (it still hasn’t), which reads, “Participants Would Lose Some Profits From Accounts.” The headline is no truer today than it was the morning of February 3.
BUT AT LEAST WEISMAN and the Post ran a correction. Five days later, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman confidently averred of the Bush plan, “Here’s how it would work. First, workers with private accounts would be subject to a ‘clawback’: in effect, they would have to mortgage their future benefits in order to put money into their accounts.” Was Krugman’s editor sick that day?
Not to outdone, on each of the five work days last week (here, here, here, here, and here) the Post used the phrase “widespread skepticism” to describe the public’s attitude toward Bush’s proposal. Once or twice is a coincidence. Five days in a row is an editorial policy, I should think. And yet the Post‘s own poll, run between Feb. 3 and Feb. 6, shows public support for personal retirement accounts at a remarkably high 56%. Perhaps “widespread skepticism” describes the Post editors’ attitudes toward the results of their own poll.
And speaking of polls, the Times ran a doozey last week under the headline, “New Poll Finds Bush Priorities Are Out of Step With Americans.” The poll showed Americans oppose President Bush’s plan for personal retirement accounts by a hearty 51% to 33% margin.
You needed to read pretty deep into the article to learn that the poll was conducted among “adults,” as opposed to the much more reliable “registered voters” or even more reliable “likely voters.” Even worse, the partisan split in the Times poll undersampled Republican adults. The party identification in the poll favored Democrats to Republicans by a margin of 36% to 29%. To put that into perspective, consider party identification in the 2004 election was dead even, 37% to 37%. Do we really need the New York Times to run a poll to remind us President Bush’s “priorities are out of step” with a majority of Democrats?
AND FINALLY LAST WEEK, in this race to the credibility cellar, the Post may have pulled far out ahead. It appears they grossly misrepresented Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s remarks before a crowd of journalists. Post reporters Mike Allen and Charles Babington kicked off their story with this lede:
“The Senate’s top Republican said yesterday that President Bush’s bid to restructure Social Security may have to wait until next year and might not involve the individual accounts the White House has been pushing hard.”
But here’s what Frist actually said, “In terms of whether it will be a week, a month, six months or a year, as to when we bring something to the floor, it’s just too early.”
Frist wasn’t saying “it’s too early” to vote on Social Security reform, as in that old (now obsolete) Red Sox lament, “maybe next year.” He was saying it’s too early for a floor vote, which is self-evident since the various Social Security reform bills before Congress haven’t even had a committee hearing. Some haven’t even been introduced yet! But that didn’t stop the Washington Post from running the misleading headline screaming “Social Security Vote May Be Delayed.” Sources on Capitol Hill tell me Sen. Frist was seething mad.
So as of today, the Post is in the lead. But we’re talking about the New York Times here. And we all know how low they are willing to go. So don’t count them out.