The Washington Post: R.I.P.

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Dean Baker
The Guardian Unlimited, January 4, 2010

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The Washington Post is a paper with a proud legacy. It has done much important reporting over the years, most notably its coverage of the Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Nixon. Unfortunately, it seems to have abandoned its journalistic standards. In its last issue of the decade, it published as a news story an article by the Peter Peterson Foundation-funded “Fiscal Times.”  This compromised the Post’s journalistic integrity to the extent that readers can no longer take it seriously.

Peter Peterson is a Wall Street billionaire and Nixon administration cabinet member who has been trying to gut Social Security and Medicare for at least the last quarter century.  He has written several books that warn of a demographic disaster when the baby boomers retire. These books often include nonsense arguments to make his case.

For example, in one of the books making his pitch for cutting Social Security as matter of generational equity, Peterson proposes reducing the annual cost of living adjustment. Peterson justified this cut by arguing that the price index overstated the true rate of inflation, therefore the annual cost of living adjustment was overcompensating retirees.

The problem with Peterson’s logic is that if the price index really overstated inflation, then the country has been getting wealthier much faster than the standard data show. This means that the young people who he was so worried about would be far richer than anyone could have imagined. It would also mean that the most of the retirees whose benefits he wanted to cut grew up in poverty.

These conclusions logically followed from Peterson’s claim that the price index overstated inflation. But Peterson didn’t care about the logic, he wanted to cut Social Security and he was prepared to say anything to advance this agenda.

Of course what Peterson says matters because he uses his billions to make sure that his voice gets heard. In the case of his books, he would take out full-page ads in major newspapers to ensure that these otherwise very forgettable tracts got taken seriously.

And he started organizations. First, he had the Concord Coalition and more recently the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and now its offspring, the Fiscal Times. Interestingly, the Fiscal Times’ premier piece in the Post managed to reference both of Peter Peterson’s earlier creations.

The piece also included the standard and inaccurate Peterson refrain about “skyrocketing spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.” Spending on Social Security is not “skyrocketing” in the normal usage of the term. Measured as a share of GDP it will increase by less than 40 percent over the next two decades, an increase that is fully funded by the designated Social Security tax.

While spending on Medicare and Medicaid is increasing rapidly, this is primarily the result of exploding private sector health care costs. As every serious budget analysts knows, private sector health care costs have been growing at a rate that threatens to devastate the economy. If the private health care sector is not fixed, we face an economic disaster regardless of what happens with Medicare and Medicaid. If it is fixed, then the problems facing the public sector programs will be manageable.

This is not the first time that the Post has been prepared to compromise its integrity to rescue its finances. Earlier last year the Post’s top management planned a series of dinners where they had intended to sell lobbyists the opportunity to meet with the Post’s reporters in an informal setting. This plan was nixed after it was leaked to Politico and the idea developed into a scandal.

While selling access to reporters is a certainly a high crime for a serious newspaper, handing over a portion of the news section to an advocacy group is arguably a worse sin. The Fiscal Times piece is indistinguishable in its appearance from any other news story in the Post. Only those careful to read the byline or the note at the bottom would realize that the article was not a regular Post news story. Nowhere is the Fiscal Times identified as being affiliated with the Peter Peterson Foundation. 

If the Fiscal Times becomes a regular source of news articles at the Post we can probably soon expect to see pieces from National Rifle Association’s "Firearms Gazette" and the Tobacco Industry’s "Smoking Today." It is unfortunate that technological changes may have made the traditional newspaper economically unviable, but it would have been much better if the Washington Post could have had a dignified death.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.