NY Times

Is Congress Unicameral?

In this otherwise informative article of the challenges facing states that must reimburse the federal government for money they borrowed to pay unemployment benefits, writers Michael Cooper and Mary Williams Walsh reveal a stunning ignorance of what happened last election. To wit,

But the economy did not turn around in time and the new Congress, dominated by Republicans determined to shrink the size of government….

…Many advocates believe that the new Republican majority in Congress….

Someone needs to inform them that Republicans dominate the House of Representatives only. Congress has another house that once in awhile has something to say about legislation.

Maybe the reporters were giving us a de facto description. Democrats may be OK with the suggestion, somewhat justified, that even if they have a majority in the Senate they act like a minority, because if things don’t get better by next year, voters may blame the “Republican Congress.”

Will the GOP Cut $100 Billion or Not?

The Campaign Desk of the Columbia Journalism Review thinks the New York Times didn’t do all its homework before writing about the Republicans pledge to cut the budget $100 billion this year.  After writing that it would be hard to do, the same reporter, Jackie Calmes, wrote the next day that the GOP is backing off.

Lori Montgomery at The Washington Post apparently didn’t get the memo, even if Congressman Paul Ryan, who made the pledge, did—and then reversed himself.

Ryan acknowledged that the move would save significantly less than the $100 billion Republicans promised during the election. At the time, he said, Republicans were measuring their plans against Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011. But Democrats failed to enact that request or adopt any other budget blueprint. Instead, the government is operating under a temporary resolution that continues funding at lower, fiscal year 2010 levels through March 4.

Adjusting their goals

As Republicans prepare a new spending plan for the rest of the fiscal year, independent budget analysts said they would have to trim about $85 billion to return to 2008 levels. But with nearly half the fiscal year already gone, Ryan said Republicans are further adjusting their goals and would probably cut about $60 billion from current programs.

"We’ve already achieved some of that [promised] savings by virtue of not" permitting Democrats to fund Obama’s budget request, Ryan said. And he vowed that House Republicans will far exceed their $100 billion goal when they put together their own budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October. That plan will seek not just to shrink government to its size in 2008, before Obama took power and authorized new spending on the economy, Ryan said: It will seek to put the budget on a path to balance.

"We will be cutting $100 billion plus over this calendar year," Ryan said. "If you think we’re stopping shy of $100 billion in cuts, you got another thing coming. We’re going to go way beyond $100 billion."

So have the Republicans lowered their goal or not?

Progressive Rally Ignored by The Post?

I find it curious that, given all the run-up coverage The Washington Post gave to the Beck rally on August 28, I can find no mention in The Post about the planned rally this coming weekend on the Mall by progressive groups, who have stated their goal is to surpass the number of people who attend the Beck rally.

The New York Times covered the plans this weekend.

When I called the Post’s national desk this morning, the man answering could give me no answer and transferred me to Dan Balz’s email.

UPDATE:  After a series of email exchanges, I was referred to a July story about not the planned march but the formation of the “One Nation” coalition.  We’ll see if The Post gives this march much coverage and whether it rates this archived altar to Beck’s rally.

The Press Honeymoon with Obama is Over

Politico yesterday, in one of the longest articles I’ve seen there, lays out the media criticisms of the Obama administration.  Their complaints range from lack of access and favoritism to calls not returned and obsessive control of the message.  The bottom line, as is expressly feared in the article, is that the Fourth Estate comes off whiny.  Worse, it may be they have only itself to blame.

In the piece, writers Josh Gerstein and Patrick Gavin chronicle the widespread complaint among reporters that the Obama White House controls the message by going over the media’s heads with videos and other forms of messaging that aren’t filtered by journalists. 

One current focus of press corps ire are gauzy video features the White House’s staff videographer cranks out, taking advantage of behind-the-scenes access to Obama and his aides, such as a recent piece offering “exclusive footage” of first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden touring Haiti.

“I think someone out there might mistake them for news, as opposed to slick publicity handouts for the White House,” said Compton. “To me, they’re mocking what we do.”

So they’re complaining about not having access to softball tours of the first lady and Mrs. Biden?  Even so, who can blame the administration?  Any organization wants to control the message.  It’s the reporters job to find the real news, not wait for the White House to hand them it.

Reporters perceive the administration favors the New York Times, whose editorial page clearly supports most of Obama’s agenda. 

“It’s clearly the case that they’re playing favorites,” said Bloomberg’s Chen, when asked about the White House’s relationship to the Times. "It’s kind of par for the course. Some people understand that — none of us really like it — but that’s the way the administration does business."

But why didn’t those same reporters complain when the Bush folks often used interviews on FOX News, sure to be solicitous, to its advantage?

Gibbs denied an “unnecessary advantage” to the Times, while saying it has far more reporters covering topics of interest to the White House than most outlets. Times Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Dick Stevenson said it would be “absurd” to suggest the Times doesn’t get access in certain instances that others don’t.

“[F]ar more reporters covering topics of interest” is a key phrase.  Not that I think it is the real reason, but it may be a subtle jab to news organizations that give undue emphasis on process rather than substance.  Let’s face it.  The Times, The Washington Post and a few other newspapers drive the public policy conversation.  Television network news operations, cable talk shows and most newspapers around the country do little original reporting on national issues and instead follow the leads or run syndicated articles, often from the Times or Post.  And those stories are often about process, not policy.

Most interesting to me is the pushback from the White House when stories are not favorable.  Press secretary Robert Gibbs and his staff even complain over a word or phrase.  Gibbs defends his aggressiveness, even over the smallest thing, because lies take on a life of their own and are hard to kill, as Brendan Nyhan has described.  Gibbs pushes back in the Politico article.

“The way we live these days, something that’s wrong can whip around and become part of the conventional wisdom in only a matter of moments, and it’s hard to take it, put a top on it and put in back into the box,” Gibbs said. “That’s the nature by which the business operates right now. … This isn’t unique in terms of us, and it’s likely to be more true for the next administration.”

Asked about some of the more aggressive tactics, including complaints to editors, Gibbs said, “We have to do some of those things. … I certainly believe anyone who goes to an editor does so because it’s something they feel is very egregious. I don’t think people do it very lightly.”

Some reporters say the pushback is so aggressive that it undermines the credibility of Obama’s aides. “The willingness to argue that credible information is untrue is at its core dishonest and unfortunately calls into question everything else the press office says,” one White House reporter said.

How much to push back one should exert is a question that has been discussed on public relations forums on LinkedIn.  Some, myself included, believe in strong pushback, not only on political issues but also for corporate clients.  If a story about a company or its product, services and standing in the industry is unfair, some PR practitioners think pushback is counterproductive and will result in even tougher coverage from reporters.  Maybe.  Clearly, unhappy reporters may have a hair trigger.

“They ain’t seen nothing yet,” the longtime ABC reporter [Ann Compton] said. “Wait till they have to start really circling the wagons when someone in the administration is under attack, wait till there’s a scandal, wait till someone screws up, then it’ll get hostile.”

There are two other important questions not raised in the article.  The first is, has the press marginalized itself because of its focus on conflict and partisanship?  In the comments section of this article Tom Genin writes,

Seeing as the president wins on campaigning and loses on policy with the American people as a whole, there’s no reason or upside for him to get into the minutiae of policy with a reporter.

Oh, were that policy minutiae be what the press wants to get into.  Actual policies, their possible impact or the experience of other countries that may have employed them are rarely the subject of articles generated by the White House press corps.  Frequently, all they are reporting is the spin.  Too often, the WH press corps write stories that outline the administration’s point of view, counter opinions from members of the other parties and frequently include quotes from organizations that are usually described as “liberal” or “conservative,” sending a signal to readers of both camps about whether they should believe their point of view.  Once a conservative sees “liberal” describing an organization, they are likely to dismiss the quote as partisan BS—and vice versa.  It has gotten to the point where any partisan can make any claim and it largely goes unexamined by the press, until it has gained a viral constituency that will believe it no matter how the press later refutes it. 

Writing or saying, “but that’s not true,” after a false claim is rarely done by today’s journalists.  Thus, if readers can expect only tit-for-tat reports, why read them?  If the news consumer can’t find needed information in a story, why waste the time?  In fact, I am struck by how much more useful information I find in columns,which are usually designed to have a point of view.  That’s where the fact checking often goes on, as well as sites such as PolitiFact.com.  Wasn’t there a time when a reporter, sent information he knew to be not true, wouldn’t publish it?

University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill thinks the press can only blame itself.

Is this the same White House press corps that was too cowed to ask a follow-up question of George W. Bush for e
ight years? The press corps that had so abandoned its professional obligation to press the president for the truth that anyone who could raise their hand and throw a soft lob at the president could pose as a member of the corps (remember some-time male escort’s Jeff Gucker Gannon stint as member of the corps?). The same press corps that gave away the critical role of the war correspondent in the first Gulf War under George H.W. Bush (with Cheney as Defense secretary) and accepted instead the "organized tour" for reporters, and then under George W. Bush (this time with Rumsfeld at Defense) the "embedded reporter" control on war reporting? The corps that spent two years questioning President Clinton about a certain intern, rather than about the rising threat of extremist terrorism in the Middle East? 

If the Obama administration is taking a firm hand with the White House press corps, then perhaps its time for the corps to engage in a little "truth and reconciliation" about its past failures to vigorously engage the president on the issues most important to the American people. Otherwise it’s hard to work up sympathy for a group of reporters that have participated in their own marginalization.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research agrees.

The job of the White House press corps is to reporting [sic] on issues that matter to the American people, not what President Obama had for breakfast. There is nothing that the Obama administration has done that prevents the press corp [sic] from analyzing proposals for health care reform, financial regulation, plans for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or doing any other part of the job. It seems that the press is upset because he is forcing them to be real journalists instead of gossip columnists. Too bad.

Which brings me to the second question:  Has the White House press corps outlived its usefulness?  Donald Johnson, a blogger at Businessword, authors this view in the comment section of the Politico article:

If the W.H. press corps wants to make itself as important as it thinks it is, it should do original reporting and go around the W.H. Meanwhile, why do news organizations waste time and money on staffing the W.H.? There is no there there.

At the very least, should news organizations invest in keeping reporters holed up in the White House waiting for the latest morsel from the administration?  Are reporters serving any useful purpose asking the chief mouthpiece of the administration to explain and defend its position, if they are not going to put that information under a microscope to ascertain its validity?  Certainly, a select, rotating pool of reporters could ask such questions while the others are spending more time examining the issues. 

Finally, I am not defending the Obama White House withholding critical public information the public has a right to know.  But this article isn’t about that.  It’s about the press wanting special access.  Take the information coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., critically analyze it, confirm it if you can, find the holes in it if they’re there, get the views of others and not just the political establishment and report it.

And stop whining.

Comments Anon

The New York Times has an article on anonymous comments that doesn’t add a lot to the arguments you’ve read here before.  But this line from the story caught my eye.

No one

nobody knows you a dog

doubts that there is a legitimate value in letting people express opinions that may get them in trouble at work, or may even offend their neighbors, without having to give their names, said William Grueskin, dean of academic affairs at Columbia’s journalism school.

Call me “No One” Mr. Grueskin. I think people who have an opinion need to decide whether that opinion is strong enough for them to risk something to espouse it.  If they feel that it may hurt them at work or with their neighbors, then, as Archie bunker would say, “Stifle it.” 


Healthcare Without the Pols

Here’s how to write a story about healthcare.  No quotes from politicians.  No anecdotes to prove a point.  Just useful facts.

For all the political and economic uncertainties about health reform, at least one thing seems clear: The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago.

…The bill is the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. It aims to smooth out one of the roughest edges in American society — the inability of many people to afford medical care after they lose a job or get sick. And it would do so in large measure by taxing the rich.

A big chunk of the money to pay for the bill comes from lifting payroll taxes on households making more than $250,000. On average, the annual tax bill for households making more than $1 million a year will rise by $46,000 in 2013, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group. Another major piece of financing would cut Medicare subsidies for private insurers, ultimately affecting their executives and shareholders.

The benefits, meanwhile, flow mostly to households making less than four times the poverty level — $88,200 for a family of four people. Those without insurance in this group will become eligible to receive subsidies or to join Medicaid. (Many of the poor are already covered by Medicaid.) Insurance costs are also likely to drop for higher-income workers at small companies.

Finally, the bill will also reduce a different kind of inequality. In the broadest sense, insurance is meant to spread the costs of an individual’s misfortune — illness, death, fire, flood — across society. Since the late 1970s, though, the share of Americans with health insurance has shrunk. As a result, the gap between the economic well-being of the sick and the healthy has been growing, at virtually every level of the income distribution.

The health reform bill will reverse that trend. By 2019, 95 percent of people are projected to be covered, up from 85 percent today (and about 90 percent in the late 1970s). Even affluent families ineligible for subsidies will benefit if they lose their insurance, by being able to buy a plan that can no longer charge more for pre-existing conditions. In effect, healthy families will be picking up most of the bill — and their insurance will be somewhat more expensive than it otherwise would have been.

…Since 1980, median real household income has risen less than 15 percent. The only period of strong middle-class income growth during this time came in the mid- and late 1990s, which by coincidence was also the one time when taxes on the affluent were rising.

For most of the last three decades, tax rates for the wealthy have been falling, while their pretax pay has been rising rapidly. Real incomes at the 99.99th percentile have jumped more than 300 percent since 1980. At the 99th percentile — about $300,000 today — real pay has roughly doubled.

The laissez-faire revolution that Mr. Reagan started did not cause these trends. But its policies — tax cuts, light regulation, a patchwork safety net — have contributed to them.

I left in the hyperlinks in the story.  They are good sources.

Cross posted on Commonwealth Commonsense.

News You Can Refuse

It still doesn’t look like internet users are willing to pay for new content sites, at least according to the headline on this S.F. Chronicle story.  But dig deeper and there appears some hope for rags considering charging for content.

The New York Times and other news outlets have said they will start charging for online access to news stories. But Nielsen said only 34 percent of newspaper readers and 39 percent of magazine readers would consider paying for online content, and that percentage drops to 31 percent for users of online-only news sites.

If about a third of your online readers are willing to pay something, even if only pennies per story, you would think newspapers could make the model work.

Who Put Adam Nagourney Up to His Thinly Sourced Article?

New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney has an article suggesting Virginia Democrats are regretting their choice of Creigh Deeds as their candidate for governor.  Nagourney’s analysis of Deeds’ poor campaign is accurate, but there are several problems with it.

1.  It is thinly sourced.  The only  source cited is Virginia political analyst Robert Holsworth.  Generally, Holsworth provides credible insight (though his blog posts are written in a weird one sentence per paragraph style that disjoint his thinking), but no one else is cited in the article.

2.  Maybe it is “hard not to forgive some Virginia Democrats for thinking that they might have been better off with Mr. McAuliffe at the top of the ticket,”  but Nagourney offers no one, quoted anonymously or even referenced, to support his contention.

3. Nagourney’s conclusion – for with no sources that’s all this article is – is ludicrous.  Whatever disabilities Deeds has -– and he is, at best, an ineffective, some might say bumbling, campaigner -– the idea that Terry McAuliffe, an abrasive interloper in the Commonwealth’s politics, could draw more votes than Deeds isn’t credible.  Would he excite Democrats more?  Yes, probably.  Would he have more money to spend?  Most definitely.  But would he get anything more than the most yellow dog Democrats outside of Northern Virginia to vote for him?  Absolutely not.  With Dems reminding everyone of their fecklessness on Capitol Hill and Obama appearing uncertain, weak and all hat and no cattle, the idea that McAuliffe could win the race is unsupported. Obama won Virginia.  Bill Clinton didn’t.  With McAuliffe’s ties to the Clintons, there is little chance he could win this year – or any year, really.

So the question is, who put Nagourney up to this article?  In it, he states that McAuliffe himself and aides to Deeds and his opponent Bob McDonnell “did not respond to a request for comment.” So what possessed the reporter to write this story?  Someone’s pitch worked.  I doubt it was Holsworth, but whoever it was, they are still smoking – and inhaling – something.

Cross posted on Commonwealth Commonsense.

Brooks vs. Limbaugh

David Brooks has a column this morning arguing that rancid radio and caustic cable shows really don’t have much power and that the GOP leadership should ignore them.  Of course, Rush Limbaugh shot back, arguing that more people listen to him than read Brook’s column.  That may be true.  But Brook’s article has one line in his column, referring to GOP politicians, that I think is brilliant.

They mistake media for reality.

Now you might argue that reality has nothing to do with legislation or elections for that matter.  I’ll leave it to you to argue with Brooks.

An NYT Lesson for Others

The New York Times AME of journalistic standards answers a reader’s question about how the Times responds to attacks by Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives mouthpieces criticizing its coverage:

The Times is attacked pretty much every day by commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, who even declared war against us. That’s not news, so we don’t “cover” it, but when they point out errors we have actually made, or other lapses, we correct them just as we do when others call them to our attention.