Toxic Journalism

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.

Here’s another economist–Richard Eskow–with a similar take.

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.

13 Comments on “Toxic Journalism”

  1. RSM says:

    Apparently Dean Baker (via Brad DeLong, who agrees with him) has been dismissively critical of Montgomery before:

    It probably isn’t surprising she’d have her nose in the air when confronted with his complaints about her reporting this time out.

    Here’s a list of the Media Matters articles pertaining to Ms. Montgomery:

    Washington Post Inflates Public’s Prioritization Of Deficit Reduction
    February 15, 2011 11:17 am ET filed under Blog

    WaPo Manufactures Consensus In Favor Of Cuts To Social Security, Medicare
    January 24, 2011 3:26 pm ET filed under Blog

    Why Won’t The Washington Post Report Deficit Impact Of Health Care Repeal?
    January 06, 2011 10:07 am ET filed under Blog

    The Washington Post’s GOP-friendly budget reporting
    December 06, 2010 11:54 am ET filed under Blog

    Washington Post shills for “regressive” budget plan
    November 22, 2010 10:19 am ET filed under Blog

    Washington Post, please define “efforts”
    September 13, 2010 2:22 pm ET filed under Blog

    Washington Post leaves readers in the dark
    September 08, 2010 11:08 am ET filed under Blog

    Thumb on the scale: the Washington Post GOP-friendly taxes-and-deficits framing
    February 01, 2010 10:49 am ET filed under Blog

    Wash. Post claimed McCain “most aggressive” of the three major candidates in “identifying ways to reduce spending,” ignoring cost of Iraq policy
    March 28, 2008 4:23 pm ET filed under Research

    She’s pretty clearly a GOP propagandist when it comes to economic reporting.

    Happy Anniversary for the site!

    • dakinikat says:

      That’s a long list! I have no idea why WAPO feels like putting such a blatantly biased person some place other than the op ed page.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Wow, great research! I just wish knew where Lori went to college. It must be some place like Bob Jones University. She seems ashamed to say where she got her degree.

    • Glamp says:

      “Lori Montgomery is an award-winning reporter who has spent much of the past 25 years covering government at the national, state and local level. She currently covers national economic policy for the Washington Post, including tax policy, spending and the federal budget. She has taken a lead role in covering Washington’s response to the recent recession, and was honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.”

      • dakinikat says:

        Seems like that and $2.45 gets you a latte grande at Starbucks. It still doesn’t explain how “toxic” milestone isn’t purple prose nor does it explain why she got so many facts so wrong or why she didn’t actually ask an economist about the trust fund. Why won’t she share where she got her degree? Was it a mail order place or perhaps Liberty University?

      • bostonboomer says:

        Twenty-five years? She doesn’t look much older than 30. Where did she go to college, that’s all I want to know. And why is she afraid to tell anyone?

  2. dale coberly says:

    if you have Lori Montgomery’s email, please ask her to get in touch with me. I can explain where she went wrong… without requiring her to be an economist.

    i can even prove the following to anyone who cares to think about it for a few minutes:

    social security is not welfare and has nothing at all to do with the budget deficits.

    social security is not going broke. it can pay for itself forever, pay as you go. if the next generation is going to live longer than the last, and those workers will want to retire at the same age as the present, with the same “replacement rate” (that’s “no cuts”) they can do so by raising their own payroll “tax” one half of one tenth of one percent per year… that’s forty cents per week in today’s terms.

    anything else you think you believe is based on the campaign of lies, that people like Montgomery have been promulgating for the past thirty years or more.

    dale coberly

    • bostonboomer says:

      You can e-mail her yourself from the WaPo website. And why not raise the level at which wealthier people can stop paying more payroll tax? That would be fairer, IMHO.

      • dale coberly says:


        i was hoping for an introduction.

        as for raising the level of the payroll tax, first, it isn’t necessary. another forty cents per week per year is not something you are going to notice.

        second, and more important, Social Security is not welfare. It is a savings and insurance plan. Raising the payroll tax would turn it into welfare by having people pay for it who are not going to get a commensurate benefit. if you want to raise taxes on the rich, raise the income tax.

        you will note that “we paid for it ourselves” is the most powerful argument the “hands off Social Security” people have.

        (savings and insurance: Social Security is the ONLY way ordinary working people have to save their own money for their own retirement protected from inflation and market losses by pay as you go financing with wage indexing that provides an effective interest that always equals inflation plus the average growth in the economy. it is a huge good deal for workers. don’t destroy it by getting greedy.)

        • dakinikat says:

          Those are all great points which I think the right wing misses. First, even the overwhelming majority of Tea Party people and Republicans support the SS plan because they know what it does and it does it well. Second, it’s not a tax as much as it is a payment for a benefit. It’s basically insurance against longevity. It’s a publicly held simple annuity that’s to provide the basis of what should be a person’s retirement savings. It’s not subject to profit mark ups or fees. It basically returns the simple cost of living and it’s simply invested in treasuries because it is cheap, efficient and safe. You pay for a benefit YOU own. It’s not like paying taxes into a pot to be used for some road you never drive on or a war you don’t support. I can’t stand how Lori and her ilk manage to confuse the simplicity of the plan.

          and welcome to sky dancing!!!

          • dale coberly says:


            it’s even simpler than that.

            the Trust Fund is NOT Social Security. It’s just a place to put “excess” taxes until they are needed for current benefits. This normally happens every month as tax revenues come in on different days than the checks go out. A one year’s buffer is maintained in order to pay for longer periods of time when revenue falls below benefits… such as during the present recession. Note that a one year’s buffer would take ten years to spend even during a severe and long lasting recession. The very large Trust Fund we have today is largely to provide a means for the Baby Boom generation to pay for itself outside the normal pay as you go financing… because otherwise the larger size of the boomer generation would have resulted in a kind of “generational inequity.”

            This Trust Fund is invested in Treasuries because that was the safest place to put them.. not counting the political lies that are told every year when all of a sudden the newspapers discover that “we are running out of” what they were telling us were “phony iou’s.”

            But the basic way SS runs is by “pay as you go.” And here the “investment” that provides the “interest” which means that you collect maybe twice as much as you put in to Social Security… comes from the growth in the economy. You see, when you pay your 6% payroll tax (12% if you work for yourself), you are paying it on today’s wages. When you are old you will be collecting benefits based on 6% (12%) of the much larger wages of that time. Those workers are not being cheated by this, because they will get the same “interest” in their turn.

            [you should remember this. when they tell you that you will collect “less than you pay in” they are playing a trick. they use something called “present value” so they can claim you will get less than what you paid in PLUS the interest you ‘WOULD HAVE EARNED IF ONLY” you could have invested the money in their magic bank which would pay you a rate of interest 2% higher than inflation every year for sixty years without fail, and with no insurance in case you fell on bad times. it is effectively a lie, but the “non partisan experts” can claim that “present value” is the normal way to talk about these things. that’s another lie, but now we are getting so technical even the defenders of Social Security get confused.]