Hard times at the Washington Post
The Washington Post is a newspaper with a proud legacy. It has done much important reporting over the years, most famously its coverage of the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, it seems to have abandoned its journalistic standards. In its last issue of the decade, it published as a news piece an article by the Peter Peterson Foundation-funded Fiscal Times. This compromised the Post's journalistic integrity to the extent that readers can no longer take it seriously.
Peter Peterson is a Wall Street billionaire and former Nixon administration cabinet member who has been trying to gut social security payments and Medicare for at least the last quarter of a century. He has written several books that warn of a demographic disaster when the baby boomers retire. These books often include nonsense arguments to make his case. For example, in one of the books making his pitch for cutting social security as matter of generational equity, Peterson proposes reducing the annual cost of living adjustment. Peterson justified this cut by arguing that the price index overstated the true rate of inflation, therefore the annual cost of living adjustment was overcompensating retirees.
The problem with Peterson's logic is that if the price index really overstated inflation, then the country has been getting wealthier much faster than the standard data show. This means that the young people who he was so worried about would be far richer than anyone could have imagined. It would also mean that the most of the retirees whose benefits he wanted to cut grew up in poverty.
These conclusions logically followed from Peterson's claim that the price index overstated inflation. But Peterson didn't care about the logic, he wanted to cut social security and he was prepared to say anything to advance this agenda.
Of course, what Peterson says matters because he uses his billions to make sure that his voice gets heard. In the case of his books, he would take out full-page ads in major newspapers to ensure that these otherwise very forgettable tracts got taken seriously.
And he started organisations. First, he had the Concord Coalition ("a nationwide, non-partisan, grassroots organisation advocating generationally responsible fiscal policy") and, more recently, the Peter G Peterson Foundation, and now its offspring, the Fiscal Times. Interestingly, the Fiscal Times' debut piece in the Post managed to reference both of Peterson's earlier creations.
The piece also included the standard and inaccurate Peterson refrain about "skyrocketing spending on Medicare, Medicaid and social security." Spending on social security is not "skyrocketing" in the normal usage of the term. Measured as a share of national income it will increase by less than 40% over the next two decades, an increase that is fully funded by the designated Social Security tax.
While spending on Medicare and Medicaid is increasing rapidly, this is primarily the result of exploding private sector healthcare costs. As every serious budget analysts knows, private sector healthcare costs have been growing at a rate that threatens to devastate the economy. If the private healthcare sector is not fixed, we face an economic disaster regardless of what happens with Medicare and Medicaid. If it is fixed, then the problems facing the public sector programmes will be manageable.
This is not the first time that the Washington Post has been prepared to compromise its integrity to rescue its finances. Last year the Post's top management planned a series of dinners, billed as "salons", where they had intended to sell lobbyists the opportunity to meet with the Washington Post's reporters in an informal setting. This plan was nixed after it was leaked and the idea developed into a scandal.
While selling access to reporters is a certainly a high crime for a serious newspaper, handing over a portion of the news section to an advocacy group is arguably a worse sin. The Fiscal Times piece was indistinguishable in its appearance from any other news story in the Washington Post. Only those careful to read the byline or the note at the bottom of the page would realize that the article was not a regular news story. Nowhere is the Fiscal Times identified as being affiliated with, and funded by, the Peter Peterson Foundation.
If the Fiscal Times becomes a regular source of news articles at the Post, we can probably soon expect to see pieces from National Rifle Association's Shooting Illustrated. It is unfortunate that technological change may have made the traditional newspaper economically unviable - but it would have been better if the Washington Post could have had a dignified death.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited