Two separate Washington Post articles today make dubious assertions about public polling findings relating to deficit reduction. Peter Wallsten and Perry Bacon, Jr. write, "Polls have shown that Americans see government spending and deficits as top-tier concerns." And Lori Montgomery writes: "Polls show rising concern about deficits but little appetite among voters for cutting specific programs."
Neither article actually referred to any specific polling data, which may be because polls consistently show that the public ranks deficit reduction much lower than other priorities. The most recent polling on priorities found on PollingReport.com is a January 15-19 CBS News/New York Times poll that found 43 percent of Americans think the most important thing for Congress to focus on is job creation; only 14 percent said the budget deficit. The most recent Gallup poll on the top problems facing this country found that 29 percent of Americans think unemployment is the nation's most important problem and another 26 percent think the economy generally is; only 12 percent told Gallup the deficit is the most important problem.
And what of the Washington Post's own polling? The last time a Washington Post poll asked respondents to rank the deficit against other issues in terms of importance was last October, when the paper asked people to name the most important issue in determining their vote. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters said the economy was most important, 18 percent said health care, 12 percent said "the way DC work[s]," 8 percent said taxes, and only 6 percent said the budget deficit. Six.
Wallsten and Bacon also write: "Polls also indicate that Obama needs to boost his budget-cutting credentials, with just 43 percent of Americans approving of his handling of the federal budget deficit in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll."* But that same poll found that more Americans trust Obama to handle the deficit than Republicans, so it's odd for the Post to single Obama out as needing to "boost his budget-cutting credentials." (Not to mention the fact that the Post conflates deficits and budget-cutting.) Finally, the poll data the Post cites does not establish a "need" for Obama to "boost his budget-cutting credentials" -- not when Obama's overall approval rating in the poll is a solid 54 percent, and not when polling consistently shows the public cares more about other issues.
* This line does not appear in the online version of the article, though it did appear in the version that ran on page A-1 of the paper's suburban edition, which is accessible via Nexis.
Last year, I wrote about some problems with the branded "fact-check" features several news organizations have been creating. Among them:
The other problem with the execution of these highly structured, branded "Fact Check" pieces is that fact-checking shouldn't be relegated to occasional, highly specialized pieces; it should be a basic part of everyday journalism. Checking the truthfulness of a politician's statements shouldn't be something a news organization saves for its "Fact Check" feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn't enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I've been saying over and over again.
What I'd like to see isn't another media organization with a branded, occasional "Fact Check" feature -- it's a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician's statement without placing that statement in factual context.
The Washington Post -- the poster child for occasionally debunking false claims -- recently revived its "Fact Checker" column, and in doing so reminds us how little the paper actually cares about checking facts. Here's today's "Fact Checker":
"A secretive government committee ('death panels') will be created to make end-of-life decisions about people on Medicare"
This claim, first made by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, has been thoroughly debunked and was labeled "lie of the year" in 2009 by Politifacts.org. Yet it persists in the popular imagination. The September Kaiser poll found that 30 percent of seniors still believed this to be the case--and 22 percent were not sure, meaning fewer than half knew the claim was false.
Why might the false "death panels" claim "persist in the popular imagination"? Perhaps in part because the Washington Post routinely mentions the claim without pointing out its falsity. Just last week, the Post did this on consecutive days, in a January 13 article by Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten and a January 14 article by Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane. Both articles reported the allegation that health care reform contained "death panels," but neither so much as hinted that it was false. This has been a defining characteristic of the Post's treatment of the "death panels" claim (contrary to former Post media critic Howard Kurtz's praise for the paper's reporting on the topic.)
I can't imagine that there's anyone at the Post who doesn't know by now that "death panels" were a lie. And yet the paper routinely prints the lie without noting its falsity. The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the paper just doesn't think it has any responsibility to avoid passing falsehoods along as though they are true -- at least as long as those falsehoods come from right-wing political figures.
Let's say a stock broker tells a Washington Post business reporter "ACME Wireless, Inc. stock has increased in value each of the last four years, with no signs of slowing down. Investors should buy it immediately!" And let's say the reporter knows this to be false -- knows that, in fact, ACME's stock is in a free fall, with no end in sight, and that its entire leadership is under indictment. Would the Post print the false claim without noting its falsity? I doubt it would; I suspect the reporter or an editor would recognize that it has a responsibility not to pass along such dangerously false investment advice to its readers. Likewise, if Happy Fun Ball was conclusively shown to cause cancer in everyone who touches it, the Post wouldn't print Wacky Products Incorporated's claim that the toy is perfectly safe without noting that, in fact, it causes cancer. Nor would the paper quote Redskins owner Daniel Snyder bragging about his team's playoff victory last weekend without noting that in fact the team finished 6-10 and failed to make the playoffs.
So why does the Washington Post print Sarah Palin's lies without noting their falsity? Does the Post think its readers' ability to make informed political decisions is less important than their awareness of sporting events?
Many in the media have proclaimed the GOP the winner in the "stimulus message war" over President Obama and congressional Democrats. But they often do so with no self-reflection or acknowledgment of their cohort's role in advancing the Republicans' side in the debate through the credulous repetition of falsehoods and other Republican talking points.
NPR and the Los Angeles Times reported Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that Sen. Barack Obama has been "palling around with terrorists," a reference to his acquaintance with William Ayers. However, neither noted Palin's distortion of The New York Times article she cited, which reported that "the two men do not appear to be close."