Toxic JournalismPosted: October 30, 2011 | |
I really could write a very long essay on all the things that are wrong with Lori Montgomery’s WAPO “article” on Social Security. Problem is, I’m trying to get published in a peer-reviewed journal right now and actually have to respond to questions about my methodology and data so I don’t have time to do it. Plus, I don’t really have to peel apart a lot of the economic falsehoods because Dean Baker has done a really great job at his blog over at CEPR. I actually bumped into this bit of yellow journalism earlier today via a Paul Krugman tweet. It seems to promote every right wing meme, canard and lie about Social Security but for some reason it didn’t end up on the Op-Ed page. It was out there on the front page. Bad WAPO! Very VERY BAD WAPO!
BB and I had a conversation about it over the phone after both of us spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out exactly what qualified Lori Montgomery for rigorous economic analysis. Actually, BB even wrote her an email. I’m going to post her response to BB because it was kind’ve appalling all on its own given all BB asked was for some idea of how many classes the woman had actually had in finance or economics. Evidently, WAPO thinks you don’t need to know a damn thing to write a huge front page article. Hopefully, no senior citizens leave for the Alaskan ice floes after reading it. Also, hopefully no miserable millennium yuppie sent their grandparents to the floes either. Maybe we should call Montgomery’s parents and see if they’ve committed ritual suicide yet. Here’s her response to BB’s request for her academic background.
I am a journalist, not an economist. If you view dean baker as the voice of
god, then I’m afraid we’re not going to get very far.
My article is as accurate and as objective as I could make it. Perhaps you’d
like to point out some of these blatant falsehoods so I can respond to them
Alrighty then … let me just quote the first paragraph, then I’ll put a question to you.
Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went “cash negative.”
So, the question is this: is “treacherous milestone” perhaps the most concrete example of purple prose you’ve ever seen or is it just me? Or, do you agree with Lori, that “treacherous” is just one of those words people pull out of their asses when they are trying to be ” as accurate and as objective” as possible?
Now, let me quote economist Dean Baker on that particular paragraph too. Let me just mention this is about a 2700 word article and we’ve only hit the first few sentences. It’s so bad I feel like I should do about 10 installments. That would be eight on the bad economics and two on the bad journalism. Well, maybe tomorrow.
The basic premise of the story, as expressed in the headline (“the debt fallout: how Social Security went ‘cash negative’ earlier than expected”) and the first paragraph (“Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went ‘cash negative.'”) is that Social Security faces some sort of crisis because it is paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. [The "runaway national debt" is also a Washington Post invention. The deficits have soared in recent years because of the economic downturn following the collapse of the housing bubble. No responsible newspaper would discuss this as problem of the budget as opposed to a problem with a horribly underemployed economy.]
This “treacherous milestone” is entirely the Post’s invention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the law that governs Social Security benefit payments. Under the law, as long as their is money in the trust fund, then Social Security is able to pay full benefits. There is literally no other possible interpretation of the law.
As the article notes the trust fund currently holds $2.6 trillion in government bonds, so it is nowhere close to being unable to pay benefits. The whole point of building up the trust fund was to help cover costs at a future date when taxes would not be sufficient to cover full benefits. Rather than posing any sort of crisis, this is exactly what had been planned when Congress last made major changes to the program in 1983 based on the recommendations of the Greenspan commission.
The article makes great efforts to confuse readers about the status of the trust fund.
How can a 2,363 word piece in on Social Securitybe so densely packed with inaccuracies, falsehoods, and downright lies?
It almost takes a cryptographer to unpack the deceptions contain in an article published Saturday with the headline, “The debt fallout: How Social Security went ‘cash negative’ earlier than expected.”
The piece’s author sits us down by the campfire, holds the flashlight up to her chin, and spins a yarn filled with quotes from right-wing ideologues from both parties. Most of her “sources” have a long history of trying to gut Social Security, often under the employ of billionaire former Nixon Cabinet member Pete Peterson (whose own organization, Fiscal Times, provides financial journalism services for thePost. Coincidence? You decide.)
How many quotes are included from the organizations and groups defending Social Security? None.
I’ve actually read most of the feedback on the article from the major economic blogs and I’d say that Ms. Montgomery should definitely rethink her career as a reporter on the economy–which as far as I can tell she’s only done for a few years–and should possibly go back to writing obits in Texas or Michigan or where ever else she did her work. She wouldn’t even let BB know where she got her degrees and in what, remember? I’m thinking it must be the Judith Miller School of Journalism of Koch Brothers University, inc. Just a guess.
So, I’m not going to dissect that horrible article. I’ll only tell you that it contradicts all the research I’ve ever done on the subject including the series of posts I did about a year or so ago. It basically contradicts all the literature I’ve ever seen on the topic too unless you count junk stuff that’s come out of Koch Brother’s wholly owned subsidiary institutes and junk scientists. Frankly, I kind’ve agree with Eskow and think we should call it a Halloween prank gone bad and ignore it.
However, go read some of the stuff and if you have any questions, I’ll be glad to actually do some research for you or to check earlier sources I did for my research. Or, perhaps just answer it since I spent all these years getting a doctorate in financial economics so I could teach people about this stuff and actually do real research.
Meanwhile, I’ll close with Brad DeLong’s long standing tag line: “Why-oh-why can’t we have a better press?”
I hate to say this, but I’d like to know how she got that job in the first place. Let’s just say inquiring minds are suspicious.