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Boo! WaPo Dresses Up Like a Newspaper to Tell a Social Security Ghost Story

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WASHINGTON POST
AP

What do they call the night before Halloween? Oh, yeah. Hell night. That makes tonight just right for grabbing a fistful of mashmallows and candy corn before sitting down to read this article.

It'll make your blood run cold, and afterwards you'll probably agree: it's time to stop letting this propaganda outlet keep dressing up as a newspaper.

A History of Mendacity

The paper's own media critic, Howard Kurtz (no liberal himself), reported fairly extensively on the paper's bias back in 2004.

And the paper's former ombudsman, Michael Getler, wrote that the Post "displayed a pattern of missing or downplaying events that unfolded in public-events that might have played a role in public opinion during the run-up to the war." Getler cited a long list of cases where the paper prominently featured inaccurate assessments of the Iraq situation, ignored prominent critics of the prevailing pro-war sentiment, and buried evidence of the hawks' misstatements in its back pages.

Kurtz reported that the paper's Executive Editor, Leonard Downie, Jr., later displayed remorse and reflection: "[W]e were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea ... We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."

They expressed remorse. But they didn't change.

Judy Lives

Today the Post seems determined to play the same vital role in destroying our elder safety net that it played in leading us into war.

It's easy to imagine that journalists there are in a tough spot. But Judith Miller's fate should be a cautionary story for anyone who writes a story like this one. After Miller's "Curveball" stories played a key role in the drive for war in Iraq, and were then discredited, she went from Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times journalist to blogger (at last report) for the right-wing Newsmax site.

One imagines that, even worse than the ignominy, is the guilt (or karma, or whatever you want to call it) that flows from causing all that needless suffering.

Curveball Comes Home

This time it's elderly and disabled Americans who will suffer the consequences. How can a 2,363-word piece in on Social Security be so densely packed with inaccuracies, falsehoods, and downright lies?

It almost takes a cryptographer to unpack the deceptions contained in an article published Saturday with the headline, "The debt fallout: How Social Security went 'cash negative' earlier than expected."

The piece's author sits us down by the campfire, holds the flashlight up to her chin, and spins a yarn filled with quotes from right-wing ideologues from both parties. Most of her "sources" have a long history of trying to gut Social Security, often under the employ of billionaire former Nixon Cabinet member Pete Peterson (whose own organization, Fiscal Times, provides financial journalism services for the Post. Coincidence? You decide.)

How many quotations are included from the organizations and groups defending Social Security? None.

How many quotations from economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dean Baker, who have a proven record of accuracy of domestic economic matters? None.

How many quotations from truly nonpartisan observers like Harry C. Ballantyne, the Chief Actuary for Medicare and Social Security appointed by Ronald Reagan who co-authored a report that put the lie to many of these claims? None.

A director of the AARP is quoted, but only so that he can be characterized as the spokesperson for an "interest group" conducting a "public relations campaign."

Reporting like this makes Judy Miller look like John Peter Zenger.

Close-Captioned for the Economically and Ideologically Non-Impaired

If we had the space we'd deconstruct the entire piece. Instead we'll use a selected sample, beginning with the first line:

"Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went 'cash negative.'"

Holy cow, that's a lot of deception in one sentence. First, the sentence conflates the national debt with Social Security. But Social Security is expressly forbidden by law from contributing to the debt! It must be entirely self-sustaining. So why connect the two in one sentence?

And that "treacherous milestone" isn't treacherous at all. The plan's huge surplus, currently $2.6 trillion, was amassed because planners know that baby boomers would retire someday. That supposedly "treacherous" switch to "cash negative" has been anticipated for decades.

"Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation's budget problems, according to projections by system trustees."

No. Social Security is entirely self-funded. This is a falsehood. And note the use of the word "sucking."

"Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require another $105 billion."

The president and Congress agreed to use the payroll taxes that fund Social Security as the mechanism for a tax break. That was a bad idea, in my opinion, precisely because it opened the program up to this kind of deception. But it's misleading at best to complain that this is adding to the nation's budget woes.

"Lawmakers in both parties are ducking the issue, wary of agitating older voters and their advocates in Washington, who have long targeted politicians who try to tamper with federal retirement benefits."

The word "ducking" is straight out of the Pete Peterson playbook. If you're not willing to back unnecessary cuts to Social Security to please billionaire political patrons like Peterson, you're somehow a cowardly politician.

Another Peterson trick is to ignore disabled recipients of Social Security and focus on the elderly, painting them as demanding, selfish, and cruel for expecting the benefits they'd paid for all their working lives. (Remember Alan Simpson's "greedy geezers" remark?) In Montgomery's case, these aggressive oldsters are "agitated" and have a practice of "targeting politicians" who cross them.

"In his February budget request, Obama ignored the Social Security blueprint put forth by his own bipartisan panel on debt reduction."

Get it? He didn't reject it; he ignored it. Coward.

"Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget."

That's how one makes oneself reasonable, while at the same time reinforcing the lie. Social Security doesn't drain the budget at all.

"Many Democrats have largely chosen to ignore the shortfall..."

See Obama, above.

"Last week, Reid softened his stand, backing a ... change in the Social Security inflation index..."

Modest? Dean Baker can clear that one up for you. (He also explains the sleight of hand that's used by throwing Medicare into the equation.)

"Even that modest change to Social Security is drawing fire, however, from a powerful network of organizations representing the elderly, unionized workers and traditional liberals."

The reporter marginalizes groups working to protect Social Security as "traditional liberals," which in D.C. is like calling them "flat-earthers." Yet polls prove this is not a "traditional liberal" position: 75 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Tea Party members oppose cutting Social Security benefits to balance the budget.

Our Liberal Overlords

And as for that "powerful network of organizations": you mean the one that's so powerful it stopped the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushed through the level of stimulus we needed to fix unemployment, broke up the big banks, passed the EFCA to help unions, and resisted destructive budget cuts to programs that range from law enforcement to helping the needy? You mean that network?

Oh, right. It doesn't exist. And why not? Partly because organizations like the Post suppress or distort their views while relentlessly promoting those of their powerful and well-funded opponents, often in the guise of "news" articles like this one.

Behind the Mask

There's more -- much more -- but you get the drift.

It's time to accept the fact that the Post is no longer a reputable newspaper. It's been criticizing again and again for its slanted and biased reporting, and yet it refuses to correct itself. It requires extraordinary credulity to keep assuming this is accidentally sloppy reporting.

What thePost does isn't journalism. It's propaganda dressed up in a newspaper outfit, going door to door to its subscribers and shouting, "Trick or treat!" The problem is, we keep getting the trick instead of the treat.

Happy Halloween.

Update: Some guy with a beard and a Nobel Prize weighs in on this. He was not quoted in the Post piece. Apparently he lacks the economic gravitas of people like Erskine Bowles, who's on the Board of the bailed-out financial firm Morgan Stanley.

Update 2: A Huffington Post commenter insists that I "claimed 'inaccuracies, falsehoods, and downright lies' but delivered problems of tone, and emphasis." Then, without irony, the commenter links to a "fact sheet" on Social Security from -- The Washington Post!

Here's a fact sheet on those "inaccuracies, falsehoods, and downright lies" -- as many as I could squeeze in, anyway.

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