Frustrated defenders of Social Security have been wondering for years why the Washington Press Corps – the elite of American journalism – are so nakedly eager to see our national retirement system gutted. FAIR explained it to us back in 1996. Time for a revisit.
In the classic ’60s TV series The Prisoner, a disgruntled espionage agent resigns. He is then kidnapped and taken to the Village, a deceptively innocuous seaside community where everybody is happy and content to believe exactly what they’re told, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Washington – by which I refer to Pennsylvania Avenue, K Street, the think-tank community, Georgetown, and their various satellites – is a little like The Village in that dystopian fantasy. A high-octane resumé farm, a postage stamp of a place seething with ambition and Type A megalomania, but nevertheless a land of intellectual conformity and unexamined consensus.
Journalists always feel a strong tendency to take on the ideological coloration of the people they write about. But “national” journalists based in Washington don’t just write about what happens in our version of the Village. Knowingly or not, they’re part of its power structure, its political economy, its means of crafting and disseminating ideas and positions. Washington is the top of the heap in American journalism, and you get there by absorbing the conventional wisdom and becoming adept at broadcasting it out to the American public.
I offer this short sociology lesson by way of reintroducing a groundbreaking study that Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting published in 1998. FAIR commissioned David Croteau, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, to survey 444 Washington journalists by found that 56% saw the need to “reform entitlement programs by slowing the rate of increase in spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security” as “one of the top few” priorities of government. Of those surveyed, 19% considered it the highest agenda item. That’s in contrast to a poll taken at about the same time that found only 35% of the general public counted it as one of their top priorities. Conversely, 59% of the public identified the need to “protect Medicare and Social Security against major cuts” as a top priority, compared with only 39% of Washington journalists.
This isn’t to say that the Washington Press Corps are uninformed or incurious – just that when it comes to matters on which the Village tends to hold strong opinions, their curiosity is rather easily satisfied. And, I would add, that it’s high time that FAIR, or some other public-spirited organization, updated that 1998 study. It would be interesting to know if the priorities of the American journalistic elite are still so profoundly different from those of the people it’s supposed to serve.
I’m reasonably sure the problem is still with us. But what is the problem? Journalists are entitled to their opinions – the ideal of the disinterested reporter or editor is an American invention that was always largely mythical – so long as those opinions still allow us a glimpse of the world as it is. This isn’t always the case with journalists in the Village.
Take that Washington obsession, The Grand Bargain on Everything Economic. For several years – arguably, dating back as far as 2006 – deficit hawks on the center-right and the non-Tea Party right have been touting a sweeping deal to slash deficits, rein in entitlements, and make the tax code more friendly to business. The Washington Press Corps regularly reports optimistically on any hint of activity in this direction by members of Congress.
Trudy Lieberman of Columbia Journalism Review notes that, shortly after the 2010 elections, the Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery eagerly announced that
a surprisingly broad consensus is forming around the actions required to stabilize borrowing and ease fears of a European-style debt crisis in the United States.
Earlier this month, Gerald F. Seib, who writes the Wall Street Journal’s “Capital Journal” column, noted,
Most sensible people in Washington know exactly what kinds of compromises on the deficit, taxes, trade and entitlement programs are within reach to change the economic trajectory.
In fact, there neither was nor is a “surprisingly broad consensus” among “most sensible people in Washington” about any of these matters. It’s true that high-profile members of the Democratic center-right and certain Republicans have been attempting for some time to put together a Grand Bargain on Everything Economic. The presidential commission chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson was one such effort, the Gang of Six pulled together by Sens. Mark Warner and Saxbee Chambliss was another, and innumerable commissions and panels have been deputized by conservative and center-right think-tanks – often funded by hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson – to come up with such a deal.
All have failed, and for reasons that should be obvious. The deficit hawks have never commanded anything like compelling numbers in either house of Congress, and no president with any sense would walk off a cliff for a Grand Bargain that might leave him or her alone in midair. Plus, the debt-fueled emergency that’s touted as the urgent reason for the Grand Bargain has never been all that urgent: health care spending, not entitlements, is what’s out of control, and the low interest rates the federal government commands for its Treasury bonds demonstrate clearly that the federal government’s debt load isn’t excessive.
Plus, Republican leaders are so sure they will have command of all three branches of government next year that they see no need to work for a harmonic convergence that would continue some elements they disagree with. And progressive Democrats understand – most of the time, anyway – that dismantling Social Security and Medicare would redefine them as the Party of Warmed Over Republicanism.
Finally, the mating dance between conservative Republicans and center-right Democrats that’s gone on for three decades now has always been hobbled by the fact that every time it nears consummation, the Republican Party takes another ideological lurch to the right. Which means that the mating dance once again has to be reset and restarted. This has happened over and over – to the point that one would think sophisticated Washington media hands ought to recognize the pattern.
But they don’t, and in this, they fail us at the one thing we ask of them, whatever their individual political beliefs: to give us a reasonably accurate read on what’s happening behind the scenes in the capital. Instead, reporters like Seib and Montgomery continue to issue impossibly optimistic reports from the deficit hawks’ camp as if the Grand Bargain on Everything Economic were just around the corner. Not to say that it could never happen. But we’d all have a better idea what the odds really are if our news was coming from somewhere other than the Village.