Yesterday, after the Treasury Department announced that total public debt has surpassed $16 trillion, a number of media outlets quoted vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan attacking President Obama for not reducing said debt. "Of all the broken promises from President Obama, this is probably the worst one because this debt is threatening jobs today, it is threating prosperity today," said Ryan in Iowa, stumping for Mitt Romney. That debt, however, didn't create itself. It's primarily the product of Bush-era policies that Paul Ryan voted to enact -- a fact that was lost in the coverage of Ryan attacking the debt he helped create.
Uncritical quotation of Ryan's debt attack abounds -- NBC, ABC, the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and so on. But as Ezra Klein pointed out during last week's Republican National Convention, which featured a prominently displayed debt clock in the convention hall, the majority of current debt can be laid at the feet of George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress of the early 2000s.
The specific Bush-era policies driving debt, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are the tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the bailouts of Wall Street and Fannie and Freddie. Economic recovery measures put in place under Obama, i.e. the stimulus, play a comparatively miniscule part in the total debt picture.
Paul Ryan voted for the tax cuts. He voted for the wars. He voted for TARP. Every Bush-era policy that ballooned the debt to its current level got the Paul Ryan stamp of approval. And if press outlets are going to quote him saying "this debt is threatening jobs today, it is threating prosperity today," they should note that this "threat" is partially of his own creation.
The National Journal's Major Garrett brought up the Republican campaign to use the "you didn't build that" line to attack President Obama during both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, but let stand the distortion at the heart of that campaign. In fact, during his speech -- as independent fact-checkers have noted -- Obama was explaining how small businesses have benefitted from the successes and contributions of others, including government, which Garrett failed to point out.
There's no question Obama inartfully phrased those two sentences, but it's clear from the context what the president was talking about. He spoke of government -- including government-funded education, infrastructure and research -- assisting businesses to make what he called "this unbelievable American system that we have."
In summary, he said: "The point is ... that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."
During a discussion about the 2012 presidential election on NBC's The Chris Matthews Show, Garrett, a former Fox News White House correspondent who is now a National Journal congressional correspondent, referred to how "Republicans will use the president's 'you didn't build that' against him" at the respective party conventions. Garrett continued by explaining that the comments would be used "thematically at the Republican convention and with traveling hecklers in Charlotte," where the Democratic National Convention will be held.
But as the full context of Obama's comments show, he was simply noting that the success of small businesses comes not only from their own initiative, but also can come from outside influences such as "a great teacher somewhere in your life" and investment "in roads and bridges."
UPDATE (2/10/12): National Journal accurately identified Michael McKenna as a "Republican energy lobbyist" in a January 26 article. Politico, on the other hand, has quoted McKenna without noting that he is a lobbyist in at least two articles since this post was published.
One of these is not like the others:
National Journal reporters have quoted Michael McKenna 21 times in the past year, more than any other news outlet in the Nexis database. In each case, McKenna provided comments on the politics surrounding energy and environment issues, including EPA regulations, climate change, clean energy, and gasoline prices. Not once did National Journal note that McKenna is a lobbyist who represents oil and utility companies. Instead, he was identified as a "Republican strategist who focuses on energy issues," or a "GOP energy strategist."
McKenna is the President of MWR Strategies, which aims "to help our clients advance their agendas in the public policy and media arenas." According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, MWR Strategies has worked for major fossil fuel interests including American Electric Power, Southern Co and Koch Industries, for several years.
National Journal is not alone in omitting this information about McKenna. Politico reporters quoted the "GOP energy strategist" in 14 energy and environment stories over the past year without mentioning his lobbying firm or its clients.
Yesterday, ABC News released excerpts from Barbara Walters' interview with President Obama and the First Lady, scheduled to air on tonight's 20/20. Several news outlets have focused on President Obama's comments about the "laziness in me," featuring headlines that lack needed context.
Politico headlined their story "Obama: I have some Hawaii laziness," while the Daily Caller went with "Obama: "There's a laziness in me," and National Journal selected "Obama Blames Hawaii For His 'Deep Down' Laziness."
All of these headlines would likely give readers the impression that Obama was saying that he tends to avoid doing work, which would fit neatly into a common conservative attack on Obama. But the full context of the interview shows that Obama was actually saying just the opposite. Obama told Walters: "It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me." [Emphasis added.] He later added: "when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
While some reports on the Walters interview have included parts of this key context, the headlines generally have not.
From the full transcript of the interview, obtained from the White House [emphasis added]:
Q Okay. What's the trait you most deplore in yourself and the trait you most deplore in others?
THE PRESIDENT: Laziness.
Q You've lazy?
THE PRESIDENT: It's interesting, there is a -- deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there's a laziness in me. I mean, probably --
MRS. OBAMA: If you had your choice --
THE PRESIDENT: It's probably from growing up in Hawaii, and it's sunny outside, and sitting on the beach --
Q Sounds good to me.
PRESIDENT: Right. But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs. Although -- sorry, I shouldn't provide two answers. The thing actually that I most dislike is cruelty. I can't stand cruel people. And if I see people doing something mean to somebody else just to make themselves feel important, it really gets me mad. But in myself, since I tend not to be a mean person, if I get lazy, then I get mad at myself.
The portion of the interview released by ABC News does not include this part of Obama's statement: "But when I'm mad at myself, it's because I'm saying to myself, you know what, you could be doing better; push harder. And when I -- nothing frustrates me more than when people aren't doing their jobs."
Politico's Ben Smith is calling this the "next anti-Obama talking point," while Mediaite's Jon Bershad says, "If you're a fan of right wing media ... you're probably going to be seeing that clip about 5,000,000 times in the next week." Which is all the more reason why responsible journalists should be emphasizing what Obama actually said rather than writing sensationalist, misleading headlines.
A study published in the prestigious journal American Economic Review estimates that the costs imposed on society by air pollution from coal-fired power plants are greater than the value added to the economy by the industry. The study concluded that coal may be "underregulated" since the price we pay for coal-fired power doesn't account for its costs.
According to a Nexis search, not a single major newspaper or television network has covered the study. By contrast, an industry-funded report on the cost of EPA regulations of these air pollutants has received considerable media attention.
The authors of the American Economic Review paper -- Nicholas Muller of Middlebury College and Yale's William Nordhaus and Robert Mendelsohn -- are considered centrists. Mendelsohn opposed the Kyoto climate treaty and spoke this year at the right-wing Heartland Institute's conference on climate change.
Economist Paul Krugman wrote that the study should "be a major factor in how we discuss economic ideology," adding "It won't, of course." From Krugman's post:
It's important to be clear about what this means. It does not necessarily say that we should end the use of coal-generated electricity. What it says, instead, is that consumers are paying much too low a price for coal-generated electricity, because the price they pay does not take account of the very large external costs associated with generation. If consumers did have to pay the full cost, they would use much less electricity from coal -- maybe none, but that would depend on the alternatives.
At one level, this is all textbook economics. Externalities like pollution are one of the classic forms of market failure, and Econ 101 says that this failure should be remedied through pollution taxes or tradable emissions permits that get the price right. What Muller et al are doing is putting numbers to this basic proposition -- and the numbers turn out to be big. So if you really believed in the logic of free markets, you'd be all in favor of pollution taxes, right?
In a Bloomberg op-ed today, former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) criticizes his fellow conservatives for not dealing in facts when it comes to climate science. The National Journal also has an interesting article out on how a "number of influential Republicans who have left the battlefield of electoral politics are now taking action in an effort to change the GOP's stance" on climate change. After noting that Inglis is making a conservative case for taking action to combat climate change, the article stated:
A leading GOP strategist who advises congressional leadership on energy issues was dismissive of the former officeholders' efforts.
"If you're Bob Inglis and really believe that, the way that we work these things out is that you run for office," said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. "These retired guys, they say they think this, that, and the other. But if you really want to change it, you have to be on the inside. If you care about this stuff, you run for office. They have been unable to convince anybody that they're right. The working party thinks one thing; these retirees think another. If you want to make a difference, get off the porch and work with the rest of us."
But who is Mike McKenna and whose interests does he represent?
Whenever a Democratic Senator runs for president, National Journal comes along with a deeply flawed scheme purporting to rank members of congress. In both 2004 and 2008, National Journal just happened to announce that a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination was the "most liberal" member of the Senate. In order to call Barack Obama the "most liberal" in 2008, National Journal changed the system they had previously used. Nothing suspicious there!
Worse, National Journal's PR operation then sent out promotional materials hyping the findings by touting the impact the 2004 rankings had on that year's presidential campaign -- conveniently ignoring the fact that, according to National Journal itself, the system used to declare John Kerry the "most liberal" Senator in 2004 was flawed.
And it's pretty obvious what happens next: Republicans start shouting the results from the rooftops, and the media eat it up with a spoon.
The important thing to know about the National Journal ratings -- the only important thing to know about them -- is that they are pretty much worthless. A 2007 vote in favor of implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, for example, was counted as a "liberal" vote. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute -- certainly nobody's idea of a liberal -- called NJ's ranking "pretty ridiculous."
National Journal's just-released new rankings should remove any lingering suspicion that they might have some validity. That's because the magazine has concluded that Dennis Kucinich is the 160th most liberal member of the House of Representatives. 160! Kucinich's rating is presumably a result of votes he cast against legislation that he didn't think was liberal enough -- among NJ's "key votes" is the passage of the House health care bill, which Kucinich voted against.
So, basically: National Journal vote ratings should not be taken seriously. Unless you think Dennis Kucinich is really the 160 most liberal member of Congress and that opposing legislation from the left makes you less liberal and that implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations makes you liberal.
If media absolutely must refer to ideological rankings of members of Congress*, they would do well to take a look at the rank ordering done by political scientists Jeff Lewis & Keith Poole. Unlike National Journal, they don't cherry-pick a handful of votes; they looked at 694 votes for their current House rankings. And they conclude that Kucinich had the 7th most liberal voting record in 2009.
That seems a bit more reasonable than National Journal's rankings, doesn't it?
* Which, weirdly, they only seem to want to do when discussing Democrats. Maybe because if they actually looked at reasonable ranking systems, they wouldn't be able to call Lindsey Graham a "moderate."
National Journal's Stuart Taylor (whose legal analysis is, quite inexplicably, taken very seriously by the Beltway media) acknowledges that the Bush administration tortured detainees, but argues that those responsible have already "suffered" enough for their misdeeds. See, they've been called names, and their public appearances have been picketed:
Of course, when all is said and done, there is little doubt that some CIA detainees were tortured. This is a stain on our nation's honor that should never be repeated. But the responsibility was so widely diffused, across such a large number of honorably motivated officials who tried (and sometimes failed) to stay within the law, that it makes no sense to seek to atone for the nation's sins by singling out individuals for bar discipline or other punishment.
This is especially true when those individuals have already suffered greatly from being trashed as "war criminals," picketed at public appearances, stalked by grandstanding Spanish judges, and otherwise harassed across the country and around the globe.
Sure, John Yoo said it was fine with him if George W. Bush wanted to order interrogators to crush a child's testicles. But the man has been picketed! What more must he endure? Leave him alone!
Oh, and Taylor worries that a torture "truth commission" might become "adversarial":
The sort of fact-finding "truth commission" that many have advocated could report on what was done and the lessons learned -- although it could do more harm than good if such a panel conducted the sort of adversarial hearings that would become a public circus.
Yeah, we wouldn't want anyone to raise their voice to a guy who said it is OK to crush a child's testicles. That would be ... Rude. Or something.
Once again: Who cares what Stuart Taylor thinks?
John Mercurio has a good piece at National Journal's web page, looking at the dubious media meme that health care reform would have happened by now were it not for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's absence from the Senate.
As Mercurio notes, both Democrats and Republicans have been pushing that idea for quite some time, though for different purposes. But I think he misses a subtle implication in the comments from some Republicans. Here's Mercurio:
Last weekend on ABC's "This Week," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Kennedy's absence had made a "huge, huge difference" in the health care debate. "No person in that institution is indispensable, but Ted Kennedy comes as close to being indispensable as any individual I've ever known in the Senate," he said.
For Republicans, it's a chance to humanize themselves at little cost. Worried that they'll ultimately be viewed as the party that blocked meaningful reform, they are using Kennedy as a convenient foil. If only he had been here, they say, Kennedy would have used his magic touch to reach a meaningful compromise, bringing us on board.
What I think Mercurio misses is that Republicans -- including McCain and Orrin Hatch, who he also quotes -- are using Kennedy to implicitly criticize Democratic Senators, suggesting that Kennedy, unlike other Senate liberals, would have caved by now. Here's another McCain comment from This Week:
"He had a unique way of sitting down with the parties at a table and making the right concessions, which really are the essence of successful negotiations," McCain said. "So it's huge that he's absent, not only because of my personal affection for him, but because I think the health care reform might be in a very different place today."
Got that? According to McCain, had Kennedy been active in Senate negotiations, he would have made "the right concessions." And what is the key concession Republicans like McCain have been demanding? The elimination of a public option. By McCain's telling, there is no health care agreement because Senate Democrats haven't dropped the public plan like Kennedy would have.
Hatch made much the same claim on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, saying of Kennedy "the first thing he would have done would have been to call me and say, 'Let's work this out.' And we would work it out so that the best of both worlds would work" -- then adding "I would never go to a federal government program. If we do that, we'll bankrupt the country."
So Hatch, like McCain, claims that Kennedy would have gotten an agreement done by dropping the public plan.
Republicans may be, as Mecurio says, using Kennedy's absence to "humanize themselves" -- but they're also using it to subtly bash Senate Democrats for not dropping the public plan, as they claim Kennedy would have done. Whether that is accurate, fair, or in good taste is for others to decide. But it is the clear meaning of their statements.
Numerous media figures have pointed to a sentence from a 2001 speech by Sonia Sotomayor to characterize her or her comments as being "racist" while ignoring the point of Sotomayor's speech, which undercuts their criticisms.
Some media figures have postulated that if a white male or a conservative had made the equivalent of Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina" remark, they would be branded a racist, "run out of town," "properly banished from polite society," or "railroaded off the [judicial] bench."
In two days, a Republican strategist's baseless suggestion that Nancy Pelosi could fall victim to "a coup in Congress" spread from his Politico.com op-ed to all three cable news channels, TheFoxNation.com, a New York Times blog, and the print edition of The Wall Street Journal.
In his National Journal column, Stuart Taylor wrote that, according to the CIA, the harsh interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed "averted a planned attack" on the Library Tower. But according to the Bush administration, the plot was thwarted at least a month before Zubaydah's capture and more than a year before Mohammed's.
National Journal repeatedly referred to how Sen. John McCain "buck[ed] his party on immigration" prior to 2008, but did not address McCain's flip-flop on immigration reform during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Articles by the AP and The New York Times uncritically quoted Sen. John McCain's labeling of Sen. Barack Obama as "the most liberal" senator without mentioning that the National Journal rankings to which McCain was referring did not offer a ranking for McCain himself because he "did not vote frequently enough" to receive one. They also did not mention that the ranking was based on subjectively selected votes, or that a separate study that considers all non-unanimous votes offers a notably different ranking for Obama.