Despite hopeful signs of economic progress, the right-wing media have attempted to downplay positive economic news by using alternative measures to argue that the "real unemployment rate" is much higher than has been reported. In fact, these alternative measures are not appropriate substitutes for the official unemployment rate.
The Washington Post's write-up of the President's proposal to freeze pay for federal workers devotes three full paragraphs to the allegation that federal workers get paid more than their private sector counterparts -- without ever once including a single fact that would help readers assess whether that is the case. Here's the closest the Post comes to shedding light on the topic:
For months, administration officials and critics have battled over whether federal workers, on average, make more than their private sector counterparts. Government officials defend public-sector pay and say that the way critics have calculated averages is misleading.
So, basically: One side says something; the other side says something else. Useful!
The Post appears to be allergic to helping their readers understand whether this claim is true: On October 18, the paper devoted nearly 2,000 words to public opinion about government workers, again presenting the debate over their compensation as a he-said/she-said situation.
The Post's Ezra Klein has noted an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper which concludes "public employees are compensated 2-7% less than equivalent private sector employees" -- but that data has been absent from the Post's news reports on the topic. In other words, Washington Post readers who want actual facts about government employee compensation should skip the Post's "news" pages and head for Klein's "opinionated blog." Meanwhile, those who are content with opinion can get their fix from the Post's news reports. It's all a bit confusing.
The Post's Ezra Klein writes:
It's trite to say it, but the news business is biased toward, well, news. There are plenty of outlets that tell you what happened yesterday, but virtually no organizations that simply tell you what's going on. … News organizations will write occasional pieces trying to sum up the legislation, but if you miss them, it's hard to find them again, and they're not comprehensive anyway. ...
If I edited a major publication -- or even a medium-sized one -- I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be kept updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you'd have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren't following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what's been happening.
I've argued repeatedly that the news media does a lousy job of conveying the basic, essential information about political and public policy debates, in part because they seem to think it is sufficient to do so only occasionally. It isn't. Repetition is key.
News organizations seem to assume that their readers and viewers read and watch every one of their reports, and perfectly internalize the information contained therein. That isn't how the world works. That isn't how people consume news, or how they process information. If you tell them one time that a tax hike will only affect people making more than $250,000, then run 75 articles in which the proposed increase is discussed without indicating that it won't apply to those making less than $250,000, they're going to think the tax increase applies to everyone -- particularly since those 75 articles likely quote a wide variety of people making exactly that suggestion. If you tell the truth once and repeat a falsehood ten times, people will believe the falsehood, not the truth. If you convey the important essential information about a debate once, and devote ten news reports to tangential arguments and political squabbling, people won't be aware of the essential information.
None of this should be surprising. And it's easy to do things better, if anyone wants to. And there is some reason to believe consumers of news might embrace news coverage that repeatedly and clearly explains the basic information they need to know.
Jonathan Cohn, whose coverage of health care for The New Republic has drawn frequent praise, offers the latest assessment of the media's coverage of the reform fight of the past year. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz has provided a few such assessments, but his tend to consist of little more than mindless cheerleading for his colleagues that doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Cohen's take, on the other hand, deserves more attention.
Cohn, for example, seems to recognize one of the key characteristics that made his (and Ezra Klein's) health care reporting valuable:
I certainly spent far more time on the more mundane task of explanation-whether it was describing how a particular policy proposal might work or laying out the political dynamics of a particular moment. Occasionally this writing got a lot of attention, because it included a reporting tidbit that qualified as a scoop. More often, it didn't. But over time I came to realize that the mere sharing of information has enormous value-even to people in Washington who, you might suppose, already know what they need to know.
Indeed, one of the many lessons I learned over the last year is that, even at the very highest levels of power, people frequently operate with limited knowledge and perspective. That's true of how they think about policy and that's true of how they think about politics.
I've argued more times than I care to count that this is what the public (including "Washington Insiders" who, as Cohn notes, often know less than you, and they, would expect) needs from the media: Clear explanations of policy. It's such a basic thing, but one that is often lost amid paragraph after paragraph allegation and response and "analysis" of how things are likely to "play." We don't need to know that Senate Staffer X says Tax Provision Y will be a political albatross for Political Party Z -- we just need to know who the provision affects, why, and how.
There's real value in explanation -- far more, I would argue, than in simply reporting the day's latest developments and charges and counter-charges and speculation. And in repeated explanation -- it isn't enough to explain one time how Tax Provision Y will affect readers, while devoting dozens of articles to detailing claims and counter-claims about it. You can't expect readers or viewers to have seen that one explanation, or to remember and apply it to each time they hear Senate Staffer X make a claim about it. Telling the truth once isn't enough. Not if your goal is to give your readers and viewers the tools they need to make informed decisions.
So I'm thrilled that Cohn discusses the value of the "mundane task of explanation," and hope it catches on.
One of Cohn's central points about the media's coverage of health care is that the coverage "took place at internet speed" and was produced by a diverse array of news outlets -- and that, as a result, the media was able to expose falsehoods "just a little more quickly -- and, hopefully, a bit more effectively." Cohn offers an example:
Consider what happened in September, when the insurance industry released a study purporting to show that reform would cause insurance premiums to skyrocket. The Senate Finance Committee-the logjam in the legislative process-was set to vote on its bill in less than 48 hours. The study, commissioned by the insurance lobby and conducted by a private accounting firm, represented a clear effort to undermine support. It was the kind of move that lobbying groups make all the time-and, in the old days, it might have worked, since nobody would have seen through the study's tilted assumptions until, as with McCaughey's old article, the damage had been done. But within hours of its publication, several blogs, including this one, had published critiques showing just how flawed the study was. The critiques circulated in Washington and provoked a backlash against the insurers. Wavering Democrats said they were offended by the effort at political sabotage; the Finance Committee went on to pass the bill, as it had originally planned.
Cohn portrays the coverage of the insurance industry study as an example of how well the media did its job. But it is also a reminder of how badly the Washington Post (among others) failed its readers.
See, when the study came out, the Post's Ceci Connolly hyped the study without making any attempt to assess its validity -- even though by the time her article ran, Cohn had already noted that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were false.
The next day, Connolly wrote another article about the study -- an article that again failed to assess the study's credibility, failed to note the dubious track record of the firm that conducted it, and failed to explain the assumptions and limitations of the study. Her article even failed to mention that the accounting firm that conducted the study had already begun distancing itself from the way the insurance lobby was using it.
The day after that, yet another Connolly article focused on the insurance industry's attack on health care reform. Finally, in the 19th paragraph of that article, Connolly got around to mentioning that the accounting firm was distancing itself from the study -- but she still couldn't bring herself to mention that the study was based on assumptions it acknowledged were unlikely to come true.
Six days later, the Washington Post gave an insurance industry executive op-ed space to defend the study and decry the "relentless public relations campaign" against it.
Cohn is right that the bogus study was less damaging than it could have been had it not been swiftly debunked -- and that the people who did the debunking deserve praise. But it was also more damaging than it should have been, in no small part because of the absolutely dreadful job the Washington Post did of covering it.
And that's ultimately what any assessment of the media's coverage of health care reform comes down to: Compared to what? To coverage of similar efforts in the past? To how badly they could have done things? Compared to how well they can reasonably be expected to do? Compared to a platonic ideal of flawless coverage?
My own view is that the media's coverage of health care reform was much better than it could have been (explanatory journalism like that provided by Cohn and Klein being a key reason) and much worse than it should have been, and that there are lessons to be learned from both the success and the failures.
The Washington Post's David Broder had a predictably dour column about health care reform yesterday -- a paint-by-numbers job consisting of little more than a couple of quotes from interest groups that don't like government spending and a poll showing that people worry health care reform will add to the deficit. (Broder's summary of the poll alone took up 6 of his 16 paragraphs.)
If Broder ever was worth reading for his insights rather than his reporting, that time is long gone, as yesterday's column reminds us.
And, indeed, Broder's colleague Ezra Klein quickly exposed the flaws in the little bit of Broder's column that wasn't simply a regurgitation of poll results and interest-group quotes:
David Broder has a column today expressing skepticism that health-care reform will really cut the deficit. But he doesn't provide much evidence for the charge.
The specific budget gimmick mentioned in the column is that Reid has delayed the subsidies "from mid-2013 to January 2014 -- long after taxes and fees levied by the bill would have begun." But not that long. The excise tax, for instance, begins in 2013. More to the point, it's not clear what Broder's complaint is. Reid delayed the implementation of the subsidies in order to ensure the bill's deficit neutrality in the first 10 years, which is what Broder wants. Why attack him for it?
In other words, the revenue and the savings grow more quickly than the costs. Extend that line out further and, yes, federal spending on health care falls as a result of this bill. In other words, the bill satisfies Broder's conditions. But he doesn't come out and say that.
More broadly, I'm confused by the budget hawks who that take the line: "This bill needs to cut the deficit, and I don't believe Democrats will cut the deficit, but since the actual provisions of the bill unambiguously cut the deficit, then I guess Congress won't stick to it."
People who want to cut the deficit should support this bill, and support its implementation. The alternative is no bill that cuts the deficit, and thus no hope of cutting the deficit.
If anyone wants to offer a reason -- other than inertia -- why the Post's print edition carried Broder's column and not one by Klein, I'd love to hear it.
The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly "reports" on the insurance industry's assault on health care reform:
After months of collaboration on President Obama's attempt to overhaul the nation's health-care system, the insurance industry plans to strike out against the effort on Monday with a report warning that the typical family premium in 2019 could cost $4,000 more than projected.
Industry officials said they intend to circulate the report prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers on Capitol Hill and promote it in new advertisements. That could complicate Democratic hopes for action on the legislation this week.
Though open to dispute, the analysis is certain to raise questions about whether Obama can deliver on his twin promises of extending coverage to millions of uninsured Americans while also curbing skyrocketing health-care costs.
Connolly then quoted from the report, and quoted an insurance industry spokeswoman. Eventually, near the end of the article, Connolly finally got around to including some disagreements with the study's conclusions. But she didn't make any attempt to answer for readers a rather basic question: Is the insurance industry study correct?
Nor did she spend any time at all putting PricewaterhouseCoopers' involvement in context. It seems like they're a neutral, credible source, right? But as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein explains elsewhere, the firm's track record isn't particularly good:
The report was farmed out to the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has something of a history with this sort of thing: In the early-'90s, the tobacco industry commissioned PWC to estimate the economic devastation that would result from a tax on tobacco. The report was later analyzed by the Arthur Andersen Economic Consulting group, which concluded that "the cumulative effect of PW's methods ... is to produce patently unreliable results." It's perhaps no surprise that the patently unreliable results were all in the tobacco industry's favor.
That seems like some useful context that could have helped Connolly's readers, doesn't it? Klein goes on to point out glaring flaws in the insurance industry study -- flaws that are nowhere to be found in Connolly's article. Instead, Connolly leads with the alarming conclusion that the "typical family" could pay $4,000 more for health care -- and makes no attempt to assess the validity of that claim. She doesn't even explain what "typical family" means.
Could someone explain to me why Connolly's write-up is on the front page of the Washington Post, and Klein's is on a blog on the Post's web page?
UPDATE: TNR's Jonathan Cohn posted at 10:56 last night an assessment of the study that noted it makes a series of "strange assumptions" that calls its conclusions into question. Like this one, which Cohn quotes directly: "We have estimated the potential impact of the tax on premiums. Although we expect employers to respond to the tax by restructuring their benefits to avoid it, we demonstrate the impact assuming it is applied."
So the insurance industry study is based on assumptions it believes are false. That's a pretty damning piece of information, isn't it? Jonathan Cohn posted it online last night -- but Ceci Connolly couldn't be bothered to include it in her write-up of the insurance industry's attack for today's Washington Post.