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Mr. Serious: The Ryan Budget Plan and the Beltway Media

by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

NEW YORK - The budget proposal released last week by Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.) includes tax cuts for the wealthy, tax hikes for the middle class, drastic cuts in spending and a radical restructuring of Medicare that would shift most of the cost of healthcare to seniors. Its dubious claims of deficit reduction rely on fatally flawed assumptions and inexplicable projections (Center for Budget & Policy Priorities, 4/7/11; CEPR, 4/11).

House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan touts his 2012 federal spending plan on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on 5 April 2011. This so-called 'serious' plan is based on dubious claims of deficit reduction and relies on fatally flawed assumptions and inexplicable projections. (Photograph: AP Photo/J Scott Applewhite) But much of the media coverage about the plan has presented Ryan's proposal as a serious solution to long-term budget problems, or at least the starting point of a serious conversation about the topic.

In Time magazine (4/18/11), readers learned that Paul Ryan--described as having "jet black hair and a touch of Eagle Scout to him"--has

unveiled an ambitious package of huge budget cuts designed to dig the country out of its crippling debt crisis. For Ryan, reining in spending is nothing less than an act of patriotic valor.
 

The magazine also declared that he is "a PowerPoint fanatic with an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents."

Deep into the article, readers get this parenthetical warning:

(He's also been criticized for peddling fuzzy math and rosy projections. A Washington Post factcheck deemed his budget full of "dubious assertions, questionable assumptions and fishy figures.")


So someone with "an almost unsettling fluency in the fine print of massive budget documents" has presented a budget plan full of obvious problems.

How can both things be true?

For too many media outlets, probing the details of the plan is less important than telling an appealing political story: that finally someone has presented a "serious" budget proposal. Lacking evidence to demonstrate the plan's seriousness, media cite Ryan's biography in order to supply the necessary credibility.

Thus the Washington Post (4/6/11) explained that Ryan is "wonky" and "an unlikely revolutionary." The Post added that "Ryan studied economics in college, and in Congress he has embraced the weedy issues of the federal budget." The Post's lead wondered if Ryan can "really manage the hardest sales job in U.S. politics." The paper seemed to think so:

So far, the sales pitch appears to be classic Ryan. He will make his case with earnestness and a hope that a quiet explanation of budget math can swing the country in a way that previous politicians could not.


Ryan's "budget math" relies on, among other things, wildly implausible estimates concerning unemployment and government spending (Conscience of a Liberal, 4/6/11). As salesman to the corporate media, it seems Ryan is largely succeeding.

He's been making the media swoon for months now, as the January 25 New York Times made clear:

He is the guy with the piercing blue eyes, love for heavy metal on his iPod and a reputation among Democrats, including President Obama, as a Republican who has put forward budget ideas that are thoughtful and serious, if not in sync with their own.


New York Times columnist David Brooks (4/4/11) called Ryan's budget plan "the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes.... The Ryan budget will not be enacted this year, but it will immediately reframe the domestic policy debate." Brooks went on to declare that "the Ryan budget will put all future arguments in the proper context," closing with this: "Paul Ryan has grasped reality with both hands. He’s forcing everybody else to do the same."

Even those who disagreed with Ryan's plan found ways to praise it. In Time (4/18/11), Fareed Zakaria wrote that "Ryan's plan is deeply flawed, but it is courageous." Zakaria adds that "Ryan makes magical assumptions about growth--and thus tax revenues," and that other aspects are "highly unrealistic." But still he concludes that he applauds it as "a serious effort to tackle entitlement programs."

And on NBC's Chris Matthews Show (4/10/11), pundit Gloria Borger declared:"We have to give Paul Ryan an awful lot of credit because, as all of our august colleagues have said, yes, it does define the conversation for 2012."

In a piece for Time.com, reporter Michael Grunwald (4/7/11) noted the incongruity of such praise and wondered, "What's so brave about fuzzy math in the service of Tea Party ideology"?

The Washington Post factcheck of the Ryan plan by Glenn Kessler (4/6/11)--the one cited in passing by Time--represented a genuine attempt to assess Ryan's proposal. When Ryan claims that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found his plan would produce surpluses by 2040, most outlets report it as fact--like the April 5 Los Angeles Times, which explained that Ryan's budget, according to the CBO, "would dramatically improve the nation's overall fiscal picture, reducing deficits projected in President Obama's budget and moving the federal government into surplus by 2040."

The Post's Kessler, however, reports that this claim "seriously overstates the case," since the CBO analysis "reflects the scenarios that Ryan has concocted. There are, for instance, no real revenue estimates, just an assumption that federal revenues will remain at about 19 percent of GDP." The spending cuts imagined by Ryan are equally implausible--a "bare-bones government...not experienced since before the Great Depression."

Kessler also noted that Ryan claims substantial savings--$1.4 trillion, in fact--from a repeal of the new healthcare law--without any explanation for why he rejects the CBO's determination that a repeal would actually cost hundreds of billions. The verdict was, as Time parenthetically noted, that Ryan's plan was based on "dubious assertions, questionable assumptions and fishy figures."

This illustrates one of the awkward ironies of corporate media "factcheck" articles. If the essential claims made by a politician are in fact wildly misleading, then it's not nearly enough for that to be said one time in one brief article. That assessment should be part of every single report on Ryan's budget, if journalists intend to do their job.

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