Economist Dean Baker runs a website that is must – if painful – reading for journalists. Called Beat the Press, it regularly calls out the embarrassing errors in financial and economic journalism, even by some of the most distinguished media outlets in the land.
I mention this after last week’s colossal smash-up in reporting a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study on the effect of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, on the labor market. The early reporting had headlines claiming that Obamacare would “kill 2.5 million jobs.”
In fact, the nonpartisan CBO report forecast that as a result of act, hours will decline, and perhaps as many as 2.5 million workers will choose to leave the labor force. As New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman put it:
“It has always been clear that health reform will induce some Americans to work less. Some people will, for example, retire earlier because they no longer need to keep working to keep their health insurance. Others will reduce their hours to spend more time with their children because insurance is no longer contingent on holding a full-time job. More subtly, the incentive to work will be somewhat reduced by health insurance subsidies that fall as your income rises.”
Part of the problem was a basic “millions vs. billions” rookie mistake. Hours and workers were the issue, not the killing of jobs.
Another element is the sad level to which political reporting has degenerated, the subject of a fine piece by NYU’s Jay Rosen. Dean Baker also jumped in quickly to correct the mainstream-media error, writing with his typical reticence, “Apparently a lot of media folks have made such a habit of repeating Republican talking points that they can’t see what is right in front of their eyes.”
Indeed, even business journalists are not immune from the difficulty of reporting in an era when the nation is more polarized than perhaps any time since the eve of the Civil War, what a friend calls “our cold civil war.”
One of the biggest challenges is that the Republican Party — I’ll just say it — has become deeply radicalized. It is no longer one of America’s two mass political parties, with liberals (Javitz, Brooke), moderates (Kassebaum, Baker) and conservatives (Taft, Goldwater). It is a party driven by a libertarian-right agenda that harkens to the John Birch Society, backed by vast amounts of money and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Today, even Ronald Reagan couldn’t win a GOP school-board primary.
This is an impossible fact for the mainstream press. Thus we see contortions in the service of “objectivity” (and not driving away Republican-leaning readers). One great sin is saying, “both sides do it.” Another is the continuing inclusion of “climate-change deniers” when that ship of facts has long since sailed. Unfortunately, the facts often do have a “left-wing bias.”
“To get punked by
is the worst
abrogation of our
obligation to give
readers the best
version of the
truth we know.”
The media are thus particularly vulnerable to the ongoing effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act by false talking points. Obamacare has plenty of real flaws and deserves penetrating coverage. We don’t need to be stenographers for liars in the service of false balance.
To think this is a problem for only political journalists is naive. The Congressional Budget Office report, after all, was primarily an economic story.
When libertarian oligarchs in Silicon Valley pontificate about how government needs to get out of their way, we are obliged to report how their businesses are often predicated on federal and university research for such things as the Internet itself.
When pro-oil experts talk about America’s new energy power, it is up to us to also report on such things as the very high depletion rates for Bakken shale fields, federal subsidies, the danger of moving oil by rail and, most importantly, the costs from continued burning of fossil fuels into the atmosphere.
To ignore these things, to get punked by false, right-wing talking points or compromised academics is not being “objective.” It is the worst abrogation of our obligation to give readers the best version of the truth we know at the moment.