02/25/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

Looking Forward In Angst: Sequester Journalism Is In Serious Need Of Adult Supervision

I don't know if last week's David Brooks column was the first time he'd ever contended that President Barack Obama lacked a plan to replace the looming sequester, but it's definitely going to be the last time he makes the contention. That's because numerous writers took to the Internet en masse to demonstrate how Brooks's claim was not only untrue, but debunkable within 15 seconds of Googling.

The force of that wave of opprobrium was enough to cause Brooks to write a correction, of sorts, on his original item, blaming free-floating "frustration over the fiscal idiocy that is about to envelop the nation" for "getting the better of" him.

No, I don't know what happened to, "I was wrong and I'm sorry," either. And it's ironic, considering that the sort of weird, detached-from-reality claims that Brooks made are just what contribute to the frustration of readers. Nevertheless, it was something of an admission of guilt, and probably the best we're going to get.

It still raises the question of whether a modicum of editorial guidance could have lessened Brooks's -- and, by extension, our -- "frustration." In a pleasing coincidence, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, responding to an email inquiry over whether there was "any type of check" on the Grey Lady's star columnists, investigated this matter, and the basic answer is: not really, no:

To explore the issue, I interviewed Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, and I surveyed the Op-Ed columnists, including Gail Collins, who was the previous editorial page editor. The response was unanimous: Columnists have almost inviolable free rein on subject matter. But that “almost” is important.

One recent exception was Mr. Rosenthal’s directive that columnists not all write about the Newtown school massacre within a day or two of one another.

Another constraint is still more rare: deciding against publishing a column that has been written. Mr. Rosenthal said he had done it only once.

"But for the most part," Sullivan writes, "columnists write as they see fit for as long as they are granted the platform." Of course, some columnists would appreciate additional editorial oversight. Apparently, one such Times all-star was Maureen Dowd. (To which I can only say: New York Times, I beg you -- give it to her, for God's sake.)

And it wouldn't be a bad thing if adult supervision spread to other news organizations. Over at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward has been riding high in the sequester news cycle, dining out on the fact that his book, The Price Of Politics, captures a scene in which then-White House chief of staff Jack Lew introduces the concept of the sequester to Harry Reid. This anthropological detail would be a trivial piece of the story were it not for the fact that the debate over the sequester has devolved into a blame-game snit over "who started it." It's an argument that has no winner, and none of it is good for the country, but it was good for Woodward.

Whether it was born from the desire to get another round of attention, or if he honestly thought he had a point to make, Woodward's next move was to get way, way out over his skis. In a Friday column, he contended that Obama, having asked for the sequester to be replaced with a deal that added revenues, was "moving the goalposts." In Woodward's odd construction, the sequester itself was an "all-cuts" deal, approved by Obama, and so asking for revenues was hypocritical. "That was not the deal he made," scolded Woodward.

Well, Woodward went on to receive the same helping of blowback that was meted out to Brooks, by people who had actually been paying attention to the policy-making, and not the stagecraft. Ezra Klein helpfully pointed out that the entire intention behind the sequester as a policy "was to buy time until someone, somehow, moved the goalposts such that the sequester could be replaced." But it was TPM's Brian Beutler who filleted Woodward's piece like he was Hannibal Lecter taking on a census worker.

Via Beutler, here's the fava beans:

Obama and Democrats have always insisted that a balanced mix of spending cuts and higher taxes replace sequestration. It’s true that John Boehner wouldn’t agree to include new taxes in the enforcement mechanism itself, and thus that the enforcement mechanism he and Obama settled upon — sequestration — is composed exclusively of spending cuts. But the entire purpose of an enforcement mechanism is to make sure that the enforcement mechanism is never triggered. The key question is what action it was designed to compel. And on that score, the Budget Control Act is unambiguous.

And the nice Chianti is the fact that the bill itself imposes the sequester unless the super committee can find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, not spending cuts. The Budget Control Act both allowed for and, indeed, anticipated that revenue would be part of that mix. So Obama wasn't "moving the goalposts" by seeking revenue, he was staying true to the game.

I like to think that a strong week of smacking down of this sort of lazy work will perhaps spur everyone to instead do their best work as we sprint headlong toward the coming sequester deadline. But then I remember that, just like everyone who spread that weird “Friends Of Hamas” story, there’s never going to be any real accountability, or reputational hit, for just being uniquely wrong about the important matters of the day. These are most mobile goalposts of all.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

This story appears in Issue 38 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 1.



They Don't Care About Sequestration