| This Week: |
Several news reports this week about Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards illustrate the flawed ways in which media too often treat the champions of progressive economic policies; among them:
Media often give short shrift to the actual substance of progressive proposals, focusing instead on their cost.
Media portray wealthy candidates who advocate progressive economic proposals as out-of-touch hypocrites. Bizarrely, wealthy candidates who advocate conservative economic policies that would actually enrich themselves often escape similar scrutiny of their personal finances.
The examples below focus on media coverage of Edwards, though it would be a mistake to assume these kinds of flawed reporting are in any way unique to him.
On Monday, The Washington Post ran a front-page article by Alec MacGillis purportedly about John Edwards' "signature issue" -- poverty. Totaling more than 2,300 words, the Post article noted Edwards' interest in "creating publicly subsidized temporary jobs, expanding the earned-income tax credit and easing college affordability." And it mentioned his proposal to "do away with public housing projects and replace them with 1 million rental vouchers, to disperse the poor into better neighborhoods and suburbs, closer to good schools and jobs."
But relatively few of the 2,300 words the Post devoted to the article actually explained the logistics of how Edwards' proposals would work, or detailed the arguments advocates of the policies make on their behalf. Instead, much of the article consisted of broad assertions that they won't work. Of Edwards' rental voucher plan, the Post reported, "The idea sounds bold, but it faces a deflating reality." The plan, according to the Post, doesn't merely face obstacles; there aren't indications that it might not work. It faces a deflating reality. Again and again, the Post quoted or referred to scholars, experts, and critics who said Edwards' plans won't work. But the article was noticeably short on quotes from experts who think the plans can work.
Maybe that's because policy experts are unanimous that Edwards' proposals wouldn't work. No, that can't be the case -- the Post was careful to tell us, again and again, that the proposals weren't new. Beginning with the headline "On Poverty, Edwards Faces Old Hurdles: Critics Say He Brings Few Fresh Ideas to Signature Issue" (note that the headline tells us what critics say about his plans, but not what he says, or what the plans are), the article emphasized that Edwards' ideas "have been percolating in the academy for years and are shared by some other candidates." So someone must think they are good ideas.
Indeed, the Post article prompted quick responses from at least two of those people. Jared Bernstein, director of the Living Standards Program at the Economic Policy Institute and former deputy chief economist for the Department of Labor, wrote: "The Washington Post really got it wrong this AM on John Edwards and poverty. ... [T]hese are old ideas, but they work (and Edwards has some new ones too, like the poverty target and some asset-building ideas)."
Wonks like Jared and me habitually complain that journalists pay too little attention to policy. But then when we read an ill-informed piece like the one in today's Washington Post dismissing John Edwards' anti-poverty proposals, we get even more infuriated. Maybe the mainstream media should just leave things well enough alone and stay away from wonkery after all.
Anrig then took issue with the Post's comparison of housing vouchers to school vouchers and its conclusions about the efficacy of previous housing voucher programs.
The point isn't that Bernstein and Anrig (and, by extension, Edwards) are right and the experts cited by the Post are wrong. The point is that the Post didn't bother to include the views of experts like Bernstein and Anrig who think Edwards' proposals are good ones. Instead, it just declared that an Edwards idea faces a "deflating reality."
Indeed, a review of every article The Washington Post has printed this year that deals with Edwards' domestic policy proposals in anything approaching a substantive way finds that the paper has yet to print a single example of a single expert saying that a single Edwards proposal would work. The Post has, however, found room for experts who are critical of the proposals. And it has repeatedly noted that the proposals would be paid for with tax increases. On February 12, for example, the Post reported:
This month, Edwards unveiled a health-care proposal that would cost $90 billion to $120 billion annually and be funded mainly by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
That was the entire description of the Edwards health care plan. Notice that the Post article didn't tell readers anything about what the proposal actually is or what it would do -- not a single word. Indeed, the addition of a single word -- "universal" -- before the phrase "health-care proposal" would have been adequate, given that it was only a passing mention. But the Post didn't bother. It did, however, make sure to point out that the plan -- whatever it is -- would cost up to $120 billion a year and would be paid for with tax increases.
But -- strange as it may seem -- coverage of John Edwards' actual policy proposals may reveal less about how the media treat advocates of progressive economic policy than does the media's coverage of Edwards' personal finances.
The Washington Post has published at least three lengthy articles about Edwards' finances this year, and it justified all three by pointing to Edwards' policy positions. (For comparison, keep in mind that in 1999 and 2000, as George W. Bush was running for president, the Post devoted the grand total of 26 words to Bush's sale of Harken stock shortly before the stock tanked. Bush sat on Harken's board of directors and audit committee, and he was told the company faced a "liquidity crisis" shortly before he dumped the stock, according to memos released shortly before the 2000 election and completely ignored by The Washington Post.)
This year's first Post article about Edwards' finances, a January article in which Post reporters John Solomon and Lois Romano explored Edwards' 2006 sale of the Washington home he bought while serving in the Senate, was described by the Post's ombudsman as "a 'gotcha' without the gotcha."
(The article, and defenses of it offered by Solomon and Post editors, contained several other flaws. For example, Solomon suggested during an online discussion with readers that Edwards had violated "federal campaign law" by not disclosing the identity of the buyers of the house. In fact, as Media Matters pointed out to the Post, it appears that there is no such law. Neither Solomon nor the Post has yet to correct the false claim, and Solomon continues to be allowed to write about Edwards.)
Washington Post editor Bill Hamilton reportedly defended his paper's treatment of the bizarre article by telling the Post's ombudsman that the sale justified front-page coverage because it involved a "presidential candidate [who] just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man."
Then, on April 23, Solomon teamed up with MacGillis for an article about Edwards' work at a hedge fund called Fortress Investment Group. Once again, the Post's ombudsman was moved to comment on a Solomon article about Edwards' finances, criticizing the tone of the article for implying "that consulting for a hedge fund, whose offshore tax havens he has decried, is incompatible with caring about the less fortunate."
Most recently, on May 11, the Post printed another Solomon and MacGillis article about Edwards' work for Fortress. And, once again, the predicate of the article seemed to be the purported tension between Edwards' personal finances and his populist economic agenda as a presidential candidate.
The Post is by no means the only example of the media promoting the idea of such a tension.
This week on MSNBC's Tucker, for example, host Tucker Carlson declared Edwards' work for the hedge fund to be "corrupt, or at least questionable" and demanded "what the hell is a man of the people doing working for a hedge fund? What's the answer?" CNN's Jack Cafferty and Wolf Blitzer joined in, too, with Cafferty "asking" if viewers "see any contradiction" between Edwards' interest in poverty and his work for a hedge fund -- to which Blitzer replied, "We'll be interested to see next week how much money he actually made. I assume it was a nice little bundle." Blitzer later suggested that Edwards' work "for financial markets" might "contradict his anti-poverty message."
And CNN's belligerent "rodeo clown," Glenn Beck, claimed on his May 9 show to be outraged that a rich man would talk about poverty:
BECK: Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards says he wants to eradicate poverty, but he didn't mind adding to his multimillions by working for a hedge fund.
BECK: He says that he believes in two Americas, one for the rich and then the other one for everybody else. How many people in that second America work at hedge funds? How many, John?
Also, do people in that second America live in places like this? I mean, look at it. I love this. He's got a buffer zone between himself and the poor. There's a trailer park across the street. And, of course, everybody in the other America has their very own championship indoor basketball court.
BECK: By the way, the folks at the hedge fund, they happen to be major contributors to his presidential campaign, and he's not in bed with big business at all.
The thing is, John, I actually agree with you. I think there are two Americas. There's one America for the spoiled, hypocritical, shady, opportunistic fake tan politicians who will do or say anything to get elected while getting a $400 haircut and the America that comprises of the rest of us. I'm just saying.
In case you are wondering: No, Glenn Beck did not tell his dozens of viewers how much money CNN pays him. I'm just saying. Nor, for that matter, did Blitzer tell viewers about the "nice little bundle" he presumably makes.
And on the May 9 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, Cavuto hosted the "Forbes on Fox" crew -- led by Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr., the national co-chair of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign and the editor-in-chief of the business magazine that bears his family's name. Cavuto, Forbes, and Forbes managing editor Dennis Kneale proceeded to trash Edwards.
Forbes claimed, "Probably the real reason he went to the hedge fund, one, to get money, and two, future target for lawsuits. When one of them goes bust, he can say, I know about these things, collect more money." Later, Forbes wondered, "How many people could he have fed in Africa with those $400 haircuts?"
Got that? Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. wants you to know that John Edwards is a rich man, not like you and me.
It is doubtful that anyone will accuse Forbes of overspending on his haircuts, but a man whose father had a private airplane called "Capitalist Tool" and collected Fabergé eggs probably shouldn't run around suggesting that the son of a mill worker is out of touch.
Meanwhile, Cavuto explained why it all matters:
CAVUTO: Is there fallback on him that hurts him, the hypocrisy factor?
LEA GOLDMAN ASSOCIATE EDITOR, FORBES: No. I mean, I think the hypocrisy lies in GOP operatives who are quick to point it out. And my answer to that would be, you know, people in glass houses. But I do think you put your finger on something very interesting here. There is.
CAVUTO: But the GOP guys are not pretending to be, you know.
GOLDMAN: There is nothing wrong.
CAVUTO: .great poor advocates, right?
Cavuto suggests it's hypocritical for Edwards, a wealthy man, to want to eradicate poverty. That is essentially what Beck and Cafferty and Tucker said, too. And it's what The Washington Post's Bill Hamilton suggested when he justified front-page treatment for the article about Edwards' house sale by pointing out that it involved a "presidential candidate [who] just happens to be a millionaire who is basing his campaign on a populist appeal to the common man."
This is simply insane.
It is no more an example of "hypocrisy" for a rich man to want to help the poor and middle class than it is "ironic" to experience rain on your wedding day. That just isn't what the word means.
An example of hypocrisy would be a politician who claims to care about the poor and middle class while pursuing policies that line the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the nation. A "compassionate conservative," for example. That's hypocrisy.
A rich man who says he cares about poverty and pursues policies designed to fight it? That isn't hypocrisy, that's empathy.
John Edwards has made his universal health care proposal one of the cornerstones of his campaign -- and said he would pay for it by raising taxes on himself, and very few others. Yet the media present this as some sort of moral deficiency and behave as though Edwards' focus on poverty and health care and economic proposals intended to help the poor and middle class means his personal finances deserve special scrutiny. This seems exactly backward. As we wrote to the Post's ombudsman after Hamilton defended the article on Edwards' house sale, "[I]t would seem that exploring the personal finances of wealthy candidates who support policies that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy would be a better use of the Post's resources."
But the media too often seem to think policies that help the wealthy require no explanation and no exploration of the wealth of the politicians who propose them.
The recent presidential debates moderated by MSNBC provide a telling example. The Democrats, as we noted last week, were asked how they would pay for their health care plans but were not asked what those plans actually were. And they were asked about their personal finances. The Republicans, on the other hand, were asked what taxes they'd like to cut -- but not how they would pay for the cuts. And they were not asked about their personal finances.
In other words, the Republican debate featured a stage full of wealthy candidates like Rudy Giuliani and John McCain and Mitt Romney, who hold tax policy positions that benefit the wealthy -- and the (no doubt highly paid, by the way) moderator didn't ask any questions about either the candidates' own wealth or about what they would have to do to the poor and middle class in order to pay for their tax cuts.
The Democratic debate featured a stage full of candidates who, to varying degrees, hold more progressive economic positions and support concepts like universal health care that would benefit the middle class and the poor more than the wealthy -- and the (no doubt highly paid) moderator demanded to know how the candidates would pay for those plans and inquired about their own finances.
It's enough to make you wonder about the princely sums folks like Brian Williams and Chris Matthews and Glenn Beck and Wolf Blitzer and Neil Cavuto are presumably paid by General Electric and Time Warner and News Corp.
An article in the May 14 issue of Fortune certainly seems to suggest that corporations like those should be "afraid" of a candidate like Edwards. Billed as the first in a series "Race for the White House 2008: What business needs to know ... an inside look at the 2008 candidates and what their ideas would mean for business," the Fortune article carries the sub-headline "John Edwards believes a new labor movement is the answer to the country's great divide. Should corporate America be afraid of him?" It concluded:
[S]hould Edwards overcome stiff odds and win the presidency, a new and more hostile day is sure to dawn for Washington's business interests, particularly if Democrats retain control of Congress. Legislation to make union organizing easier would readily pass (already it passed the House this year), as well as other measures to boost the bargaining leverage of organized labor. Universal health care, mostly resisted by the private sector, would top his agenda.
Incredibly, during Beck's man-of-the-people rant, the excitable host suggested that Edwards is "in bed with big business." That's a nonsensical claim, of course, as the Fortune article made clear.
But Beck's bizarre claim fits in quite nicely with other things the media continually tell us about Edwards: He's rich! He gets expensive haircuts! He has a big house! He makes a "nice little bundle" of money! He's a millionaire! He's in bed with big business!
The message is clear: John Edwards isn't like regular folk. It's important to Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. and (highly paid GE employees) Wolf Blitzer and Glenn Beck that regular folk understand this: John Edwards is different from you. He's rich.
Now why on earth would Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr., a fantastically wealthy man who would presumably pay more in taxes if John Edwards were president than he does now, think it so important to make the poor and middle class understand that Edwards is so very rich, and so very unlike them? Why on earth would it be so important to Glenn Beck for you to understand that you and he live in one America, while John Edwards lives in a mansion? Just a few months ago, Beck dismissed an effort to raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade as "nothing but a political issue." What could possibly cause this well-paid television anchor to suddenly pretend he is a friend of the working man in order to engage in class warfare against Edwards?
And make no mistake, that's what Beck and Forbes are doing -- they're asking their viewers to judge John Edwards not on what he believes, or what he'd do as president, or the policies he supports, but on the size of his bank account. These rich men are trying to drive a wedge between the middle class and the poor (an electoral majority, in other words) and a candidate who would raise taxes on the rich in order to help the middle class and the poor.
This is, of course, nothing unique to John Edwards at all. When John Kerry was the Democratic nominee, a bunch of highly paid media figures made sure to tell the people over and over that Kerry was a rich man who gets manicures and windsurfs and just isn't like you and me. (Meanwhile, wealthy conservatives like George W. Bush can count on being portrayed by the media as Regular Guys even as they zoom around their estates on $13,000 worth of bicycles.)
So, if the media are going to suggest that wealthy candidates who propose progressive economic policies are hypocrites and portray them as out of touch with the people who would benefit from their policies, should progressives find messengers of more modest means? Well, in the short term, that seems unlikely to happen -- all of the most likely Democratic presidential nominees are of above-average means. That should come as no surprise; as we constantly hear (usually from the news media), the political process favors candidates who are wealthier than average (the typical schoolteacher isn't as able to campaign for office full time, as is the typical CEO). So the system is slanted in favor of wealthy candidates, and the corporate media portray wealthy candidates who propose middle-class-friendly policies as out-of-touch hypocrites. Intentional or not, the effect is the marginalization of progressive economic policies.
And if, say, the Democratic Party nominated a steelworker as its presidential candidate, and that steelworker ran on a platform of rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in order to pay for universal health insurance, you can be sure media figures like Glenn Beck and Steve Forbes would be quick to denounce the candidate for shameful "class warfare." And it's worth keeping in mind that Bill Clinton did not become wealthy until after leaving office, but his personal finances were subject to greater scrutiny than any politician in American history -- orders of magnitude more scrutiny than his wealthy conservative successor.
Heck of a racket, isn't it?
This week brought another example of how the media undermine a progressive economic message at every opportunity. On Tuesday, the Associated Press' Nedra Pickler reported on the AP's interview with Edwards, in which the candidate explained that he took a job with a hedge fund in 2005 in part in order to learn more about financial markets. Pickler reported:
Asked if he had to join a hedge fund to learn about financial markets, Edwards replied, "How else would I have done it?"
He said he considered going to an investment firm such as Goldman Sachs, but Fortress was the most natural fit. Presented with the suggestion that he could have taken a university class instead, he said, "That's true."
Edwards' comments were quickly the subject of media derision. National Journal's Hotline, a political/media insider tip sheet, reported Edwards' "How else would I have done it" comment under the headline "UMMM, I DUNNO, READ A BOOK?" The cable news channels likewise brought forth snide suggestions that Edwards could simply have taken an economics class. Edwards was roundly mocked by the media for trying to gain a greater understanding of world financial markets -- a rather complex topic, though Cafferty, Beck, Tucker & Co. refused to acknowledge as much. To the political media elites, a presidential candidate who demonstrates some intellectual curiosity is someone to be made fun of. This, as Bob Somerby would say, is why we are in Iraq today.
But think what would have happened if, rather than going to work for a hedge fund, John Edwards had taken a class, instead. Imagine the AP had asked Edwards if he had the understanding of world financial markets necessary to be president, and he had replied, "Sure, I just took an economics class last year." It isn't hard to imagine a round of cable news mockery of the ivory tower pinhead who thinks he can understand the real world by reading about it in a book.
Don't take our word for it: During that Cavuto segment, Forbes magazine's Dennis Kneale took a brief break from bashing Edwards to say: "For a Democrat to spend time with a hedge fund would be really good, because you often get the feeling that Democrats have no sense whatsoever of what goes on in Wall Street and in business. And the more we get someone up there who understands a little bit, the better."
Edwards was mocked this week for working at a hedge fund to learn about financial markets. And if he hadn't worked in a hedge fund? The very same people who are mocking him now would dismiss him as someone who has "no sense whatsoever of what goes on in Wall Street and in business." The media are going to undermine him, and others who support similar policies, no matter what. Dennis Kneale (inadvertently) admitted as much.
Wolf Blitzer would probably say that the media focus on candidates' expensive haircuts and large homes and high salaries because the public is interested in those things. If Blitzer wouldn't say that, others in his profession certainly would.
And, sure, if the media constantly talk about haircuts and hedge fund salaries, people will pay attention. They pay attention to "runaway bride" stories, too -- that doesn't mean those stories are important, or that the public thinks they are. Voters may even come to believe that the size of John Edwards' house tells us something about his plan for universal health care -- not because it is true, but because Blitzer and Beck and The Washington Post keep repeating it so often.
But if any news organization really thinks the American people care (or should care) as much about how John Edwards pays for his haircuts as they care about how he'll help them pay for their health care, they can put their money where their mouth is. Every major national news organization sponsors public opinion polls. And in nearly every one, they ask a question about national priorities. They are perfectly capable of asking Americans to rank the things they think are most important: Iraq, health care, jobs and the economy, taxes, global warming, the environment, terrorism, and John Edwards' haircuts. Unless they do so, they should stop telling us the public cares about trivia like that.