Monday, April 16, 2012

WaPo Ombudsman Botches ACA Budget Dispute

Think all the way back to last week, when the Washington Post ran a prominent story on a new study that claimed ACA increased, rather than decreased, the deficit, thanks to a "double counting" issue. Over the weekend, the WaPo ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, examined the controversy over the story. Unfortunately, he botched it.

Pexton says:

Liberals launched their counterattack. Jonathan Chait at New York magazine rebutted it; Paul Krugman of the New York Times linked to Chait, and then all manner of liberal Web sites piled on, including Media Matters.
If the right’s line of attack was, “See, we’re right, the president is lying about the costs of Obamacare,” then the left’s was more a guilt-by-association smear.
That's simply wrong. Yes, it's true that part of the liberal response was to point out that the study's author, Charles Blahous, was more properly thought of as a Republican analyst than some as a presumably neutral "trustee for Medicare and Social Security." Looking back at the story, I think Lori Montgomery made it sufficiently clear that Blahous was a conservative policy analyst (I'm wondering whether at least one version of the story did not do so, or perhaps if the headline on the WaPo home page -- which is often completely different than the article headline -- referred to him only as a Medicare trustee). At any rate, several liberals wanted to make it clear that Blahous worked for Bush, is now at the Mercatus Center, and that the Koch brothers fund things he's done. So there was a bit of that.

However. Pexton cites Chait, who spent one paragraph explaining who Blahaus is and then seven wonky paragraphs arguing why he's wrong, followed by a two-paragraph conclusion wondering why the Post ran the story. He also cites Krugman, who had the same structure: one paragraph introducing Blahaus, then a two-paragraph quote from (the policy explanation part of) Chait, and then three paragraphs expanding on the policy argument. Right or wrong, it's absolutely not the case that either of them made a guilt-by-association argument at all.

As Pexton says, there was plenty of piling on. Did it get more ad hominem? Nope. Here's Kevin Drum, who spun out a long analogy in a 650 word post which refers to Blahous only as "a Republican trustee for Medicare," and that not until the 6th paragraph. Or CBPP's Paul Van der Water, who wrote a very sober and wonky analysis which just refers to Blahaus as a "former Bush Administration official." Or Ezra Klein, speaking of wonkishness, who wrote a detailed policy critique of his own. How did Klein deal with Blahaus? He explained his partisan background (worked for Bush, worked for Judd Gregg, and further explained:
None of that undermines the quality of his work or the force of his conclusions. But it’s not the case that someone from Obama’s “team” has turned on the Affordable Care Act.
That's basically the tone of all five of these posts -- and again, two are the only two cited by Pexton. They seemed to generally feel that it was important to place Blahaus in a context which, they believed, the Post had not -- but none of them put any weight at all on his background in their arguments, and the last three (all prominent, all much-linked-to I believe) didn't mention the Koch thing at all. Now, I don't know who else said what, but that's a pretty good sized slice of the mainstream liberal blogosphere, and there's just no way it can be characterized as "a guilt-by-association smear."

My other complaint about Pexton's column is that at the end, he tries to get into the policy question, and he gets that wrong, too. Early in his article, he basically gives a he said, she said, summary, which doesn't seem quite right to me (since one might think that having the non-partisan CBO on their side means that the Democrats' argument is stronger), but, well, if he doesn't want to get into it, I can understand; the basic point of his piece (which is about how a story can drive a significant flap) doesn't depend on getting the budget details right. The even worse problem is when he revisits the question at the end, and starts talking about the uncertainty inherent in every budget forecast. While that's true, and in some contexts a very important point, that's relevant to the fight here, which is about baselines, not forecasts. Which means that both sides could agree completely about what the law would do and what all the revenues and outlays will be, but still disagree strongly on what happens to the deficit. Truth is, he would have been better off just saying that he wasn't going to get into who was right and who was wrong.

But mainly, it's simply not true that either of the liberal bloggers he cited, or at least several others I noticed, participated in a "guilt-by-association smear."


  1. I do think this is a great example of press biases that are far more important than ideological or partisan biases we often hear about, especially from the right. Namely the I-am-never-wrong bias that journalists often have. This seems to be a prime example of that especially considering how after people in the non-traditional media criticized a poorly written poorly researched front page article of a national newspaper for its inaccuracies and omissions the WaPo responded by misrepresenting the critique and leveling a smear at bloggers who dare question the order of things. You can also see these biases in the journalistic laziness (a far greater problem for the American press in my opinion than ideological slant) that produces the original article in question. The old take a press release/policy white paper, repackage it as your great "reporting" while you do no original research whatsoever trick. Kinda sad when stuff like this happens, its almost as bad as the pulitzer-fever bias you often see.

  2. I disagree with longwalkdownlyndale. I think this determined misunderstanding of the criticism of the article illustrates the media's pervasive centrist bias.

    The media’s worldview is that “both sides are too extreme”, and that the Democrats should compromise with the Bob Doles and Everett Dirksens of the GOP.

    This holds true regardless of how many sides there are, or how extreme the two sides are.

    In fact, of course, there are no centrist Republicans, and the party is the most extreme it's been in a century. There’s precious little difference between a Mark Levin-reading Tea Partier waving banners about fascism and socialism, vs. the Speaker on the floor of the House, tearfully barking “hell no!” in opposition to Jesse Helms and Bob Dole’s health insurance reform plan.

    The media's centrist bias leads them to misreport facts in order to conceal the fundamental irrationality of today's GOP.


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