The "Liberal Press" Continues Its Assault on Unions, Pensions, and Public Employees

03/08/2011 05:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Matt Bai's recent New York Times Magazine piece on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is just one in a series of articles showing how the supposedly "liberal" press has a consistent bias against unions, pensions, and teachers. This bias is in part revealed in the now common idea that due to their outrageous pensions, public employee unions have caused state deficits. This narrative is repeated by Bai when he states, "It's not as if the problem of public pensions suddenly got so much worse than it was before (the shortfalls have been building steadily for years, after all)..." In fact, Bai is wrong and the condition of pensions did get suddenly much worse in 2009 after many of these funds lost over a third of their value during the global fiscal meltdown. The fact that Bai and other journalists miss this point demonstrates that they want to go out of their way to blame the victims of Wall Street malfeasance.

One reason why even liberal papers continue to criticize public employee unions and pensions is that most reporters no longer have defined benefit plans and job security. This point came to me while I was discussing pensions with a national reporter who blurted out that his 401k is way down, and his newsroom is constantly being downsized. Pension envy has thus moved to the people who are supposed to be covering the news.

Not only do reporters show a strong bias against unions and pensions, but they often fail to explain the complicated nature of how pension liabilities are calculated. Since many of the "deficits" facing pension plans are projected over a thirty-year period, the huge numbers being thrown around are actually unreliable guesstimates. Moreover, these actuarial projections often start from the lowest point of the financial meltdown, and many funds have already gained back more than half of their losses since the worst economic failure in eighty years. When I have asked reporters why they do not explain to people the way pension liabilities are actually calculated, they often respond by saying that people do not want to listen to a complicated explanation.

Since reporters do not want to get into the important details concerning pensions, they open the door for politicians like Christie to spout outrageous half-truths. For instance, while Christie blames union-negotiated pensions for causing the budget deficit in New Jersey, he fails to mention how much tax revenue the state lost due to the collapse of the housing market and the tanking of the stock market. He also neglects to inform the public that the state has been stealing from the pension fund for years to pay for tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the state.

By not tying the problems of state deficits and pension funds to the illegal and corrupt actions of mortgage companies and investment banks, unions and public employees become the displaced target of popular resentments. While Bai seems to be enamored by Christie's "triumph of self-certainty over complexity," we have to ask why this journalist insists that the public employee unions are a more effective target than Wall Street bankers. Also, why does Bai compare a governor supporting generous pension deals to Bernie Madoff? The only answer is that from his perspective, pension plans are as corrupt as Ponzi schemes.

Linked to this propaganda against public unions and pension plans is the failure to understand how escalating healthcare costs are driving up state deficits. What Bai and other reporters always omit from their stories is that one of the biggest drivers of national and state budget deficits are the runaway costs of healthcare premiums. Not only do these escalating costs make retiree healthcare plans more expensive, but they also crowd out other state programs. Since "Obamacare" has done nothing to stop the constant price gauging of insurance companies, unions are now being blamed for providing their retirees with health coverage. Moreover, in Bai's article, he simply collapses pension and retiree healthcare together in order to declare that New Jersey now faces a $100 billion liability.

As Wisconsin and other states try to downsize collective bargaining rights and pensions, the mainstream media has to realize that no one wins in this global race to the bottom. Without unions and some type of job protections, all jobs and benefits are in jeopardy. Perhaps reporters are feeling threatened in their own jobs, but that is no reason to turn on the few people who still have some modicum of economic security.