Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ideology, Bias, & Gamed Refs

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm going to miss having Barney Frank around Congress. I don't always agree with him, but no one can claim he sticks to a certain party-approved script. In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Frank, the long-serving Democratic Congress member from Massachusetts, made clear the muddiness around Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI; Charlie Pierce refers to him as "the zombie-eyed granny-starver", which sounds unfair, but only to zombies):
“It’s not deficit reduction when you increase military spending so that you can make up for that by cutting Medicare and Medicaid. That’s not budget reduction. That’s ideology. That’s the right wing,” Frank told TPM. “The other great scam for Ryan is to say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to help the rich people … I’m going to lower their rates and get rid of loopholes,’ although he doesn’t mention a single loophole that he’ll get rid of.”
Frank continues with a bit of meta-analysis:
“I agree with [Paul] Krugman’s analysis. There is this instinct to be in the middle. People don’t like to think of themselves as some way partisan. There are people who take comfort from the fact that, ‘Oh, I’ve got people on both sides who disagree with me.’ I think you see this in Tom Friedman. You see this in some others,” he said, also referencing a recent article on Ryan by James Stewart of the New York Times.

“Here’s the deal,” Frank told TPM of some political pundits. “They don’t want to consider themselves to be siding with the Democrats. It’s important for their self-image that they be seen as centrist. The problem is the Republican Party has given them fewer and fewer things that they can identify with, because they’ve moved so far to the right. … So they have to find something they can support on the Republican side to maintain this self-image that they’re somehow independent of the parties. And so they pick up the Ryan budget.”
In What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias And The News, historian Eric Alterman calls the long game the right has played against the media "gaming the refs". Since those long-ago days when Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke out against "those nattering nabobs of negativism", the tendency has always been to tack against whatever wind seemed to be blowing from the Democratic Party. Fearful of losing a reputation for objectivity (whatever that may be in politics, no one seems to know), the only complaint that seems to matter is one of preference. Considering the many scandals involving confabulation and plagiarism at major news outlets (beginning in 1981, when the Washignton Post had to hand over a Pulitzer because a series it ran on drug use among youth in the city was a tissue of lies), one would think a far greater danger would be lack of attention to facts and personal intellectual integrity. It seems to be a far worse sin to call a zombie-eyed granny starver what he is than it might be to make up stories, or copy whole pieces of writing and pass them off as one's own.

Political reporting, at least at a national level, has become little more than an exercise in repeating whatever anyone in the game might say. Little is done, immediately, to check whether that a particular pol has said bears any resemblance to reality. Last year, when Ryan released his "Medicare" plan, the sleight-of-hand involved was so stunning, members of the media who claimed Ryan proposed getting rid of Medicare were claimed to have systematically distorted the Congress member's proposal. Why? Because the voucher plan he introduced was called "Medicare".

Was it dishonest to say that Ryan was dismantling and discarding Medicare? Of course not, any more than the failed attempt by Republicans in the 2005 Congressional session to privatize Social Security was an attempt at "reform". The more they used that word, the successful effort by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to push back and call it what it was made clear what was really happening. Much the same was attempted against Ryan's plan to dismantle a successful, popular public health insurance program. Ryan, however, has showed much the same ability Newt Gingrich has displayed over his thirty or so years in the national spotlight. Abject public failure, the revelation that one is not only an intellectual lightweight, but a patsy for big money players seems not to deter some people and their fluffers in the press.

There is nothing bold about Ryan's various submitted plans. On the contrary, Paul Krugman (among many others; he is just the best known) has run the numbers and shows that each time Ryan submits some kind of proposal - a budget, something about Medicare - the numbers do the exact opposite of what Ryan claims. They don't decrease the deficit, they increase it. They don't save Medicare, they destroy it. This kind of simple, analytical work, however, is dismissed as "opinion" by journalists, who go on to claim the math involved is beyond them, so who knows who's right.

The whole game is ridiculous, and it was refreshing to read Frank's comments, their clarity and simplicity. Who wants to be seen taking sides? Well, I suppose if your world view is a species of dualism, that weird non-excluded middle term (the political center) must appear inviting, to say the least. Of course, one should never downplay the role of ego and narcissism, in particular when one nears the top of the pundit food-chain. Once anyone in a position of public prominence begins to believe what other people are saying about their work, we've entered the stage where people whose views seem different - Tom Friedman, David Brooks, George Will, Richard Cohen - seem to converge at this small point, the writers aching to be the latest incarnation of Walter Lippmann (knowing something about Lippmann's life and career, I'm never sure why they would wish to be so). The previous place-holder in that position, the late David Broder, was a master of working hard to make himself look like an outside arbiter both of insider gamesmanship and Real American Opinion.

Yet, he was an admitted confabulator, no less than Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass. In 1972, on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, Broder reported that Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-ME) broke down in tears as he responded to a planted letter-to-the-editor, known as the "Canuck" letter for its use of that derogatory term. The letter was signed in the name of Muskie's wife, even though she had nothing to do with it. The unfolding story, all rooted in Broder's original report of Muskie "breaking down", destroyed Muskie's campaign.

In 1988, Broder admitted he'd made the whole thing up. He didn't see any tears on Muskie. Muskie's voice didn't break with emotion, except perhaps anger, but even then Broder said the description wasn't accurate. For this admission that he'd been an unwitting stooge in Nixon's plan to prevent the candidacy of the one challenger who consistently beat the President in polls over the previous year, Broder . . . well, nothing happened to David Broder. He went on writing for the Post, despite an admission he had made up a story that was one piece of a huge machine that nearly destroyed the country.

Yesterday, colmnist Kathleen Parker (another Pulitzer winner) whined because a blogger's claim about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley went viral; these bloggers trafficking in rumor, gossip, and lies is just horrible, she intoned in her usual church-lady tones. She never once seemed to glance down and notice the paper that publishes her column has a long history of professional journalists making stuff up, trafficking in gossip and rumor, and generally being pretty care-free with facts. I am quite sure fellow church ladies and sages nodded, their lips pursed in disapproval at the great unwashed in the world who might say things in public that aren't true.

Things like the fact that Rep. Paul Ryan's latest budget is nonsense, his reputation as a bold, courageous independent thinker neither earned nor even granted for cause. The reputation, which emerged out of nowhere (at least to me), is True. The rest is partisan bias, because the facts and numbers are just too difficult to understand.

The one blessing we have had over the past decade is the explosion of places where news is available, the multiple sources for checking accuracy, and the tools at hand to make sure we are dealing, as best as any of us can know, with the facts of the matter. This isn't a matter of ideology or bias (unless a bias for facts is something only silly, cowardly liberals and leftists have). Those gamed refs of punditry and national political reporting, the brave centrists to whom few listen and even fewer follow outside the echo chambers of the national capital, are being pushed out by folks who couldn't care less if they are nabobs, if as nabobs they are nattering, or if their nattering is negative.

There is nothing ideological or negative in calling a zombie-eyed granny-starver what he is. It might not be nice, but neither is working really hard to put in place policies that . . . starve grannies. There's little room for politesse in some things.

Virtual Tin Cup

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