Two separate Washington Post articles today make dubious assertions about public polling findings relating to deficit reduction. Peter Wallsten and Perry Bacon, Jr. write, "Polls have shown that Americans see government spending and deficits as top-tier concerns." And Lori Montgomery writes: "Polls show rising concern about deficits but little appetite among voters for cutting specific programs."
Neither article actually referred to any specific polling data, which may be because polls consistently show that the public ranks deficit reduction much lower than other priorities. The most recent polling on priorities found on PollingReport.com is a January 15-19 CBS News/New York Times poll that found 43 percent of Americans think the most important thing for Congress to focus on is job creation; only 14 percent said the budget deficit. The most recent Gallup poll on the top problems facing this country found that 29 percent of Americans think unemployment is the nation's most important problem and another 26 percent think the economy generally is; only 12 percent told Gallup the deficit is the most important problem.
And what of the Washington Post's own polling? The last time a Washington Post poll asked respondents to rank the deficit against other issues in terms of importance was last October, when the paper asked people to name the most important issue in determining their vote. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters said the economy was most important, 18 percent said health care, 12 percent said "the way DC work[s]," 8 percent said taxes, and only 6 percent said the budget deficit. Six.
Wallsten and Bacon also write: "Polls also indicate that Obama needs to boost his budget-cutting credentials, with just 43 percent of Americans approving of his handling of the federal budget deficit in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll."* But that same poll found that more Americans trust Obama to handle the deficit than Republicans, so it's odd for the Post to single Obama out as needing to "boost his budget-cutting credentials." (Not to mention the fact that the Post conflates deficits and budget-cutting.) Finally, the poll data the Post cites does not establish a "need" for Obama to "boost his budget-cutting credentials" -- not when Obama's overall approval rating in the poll is a solid 54 percent, and not when polling consistently shows the public cares more about other issues.
* This line does not appear in the online version of the article, though it did appear in the version that ran on page A-1 of the paper's suburban edition, which is accessible via Nexis.
The Washington Post's write-up of the President's proposal to freeze pay for federal workers devotes three full paragraphs to the allegation that federal workers get paid more than their private sector counterparts -- without ever once including a single fact that would help readers assess whether that is the case. Here's the closest the Post comes to shedding light on the topic:
For months, administration officials and critics have battled over whether federal workers, on average, make more than their private sector counterparts. Government officials defend public-sector pay and say that the way critics have calculated averages is misleading.
So, basically: One side says something; the other side says something else. Useful!
The Post appears to be allergic to helping their readers understand whether this claim is true: On October 18, the paper devoted nearly 2,000 words to public opinion about government workers, again presenting the debate over their compensation as a he-said/she-said situation.
The Post's Ezra Klein has noted an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper which concludes "public employees are compensated 2-7% less than equivalent private sector employees" -- but that data has been absent from the Post's news reports on the topic. In other words, Washington Post readers who want actual facts about government employee compensation should skip the Post's "news" pages and head for Klein's "opinionated blog." Meanwhile, those who are content with opinion can get their fix from the Post's news reports. It's all a bit confusing.
I could not disagree more with Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon's statements during an online Q&A today that the media gets too much blame for the public's lack of understanding of politics and policy. Here's Bacon:
I'm going to suggest another group that deserves some blame: the public. Americans spend a lot of time shopping for cars, in line for I-pads, etc. But the number of people who don't know who the chief justice of the Supreme Court is or the name of their member of Congress is really high. Politicians, I would say this on both sides, wouldn't make so many misleading claims if they knew voters would bother to check them out. There is more information out there than ever, not only articles like what we do in the Post, but factcheck.org and cites like that, where you can verify claims. That people believe misleading things suggests A. they don't want the facts or B. they aren't interested in looking them up.
Later, Bacon added:
I do worry we pin too much of the blame on politicians and the press to almost force people to learn more about politics, but I think for most Americans, politics is something they are occasionally interested in.
That's a little garbled, but in context, it is clear that Bacon is saying "politicians and the press" receive too much blame for the public's lack of knowledge about politics.
The fact that "there is more information out there than ever" is all the more reason why people need the media to sort through that information and make some basic determinations about what is true, what is false, what is meaningful, and what is not. Bacon is missing a jaw-droppingly obvious Option C: Most people have neither the time nor the expertise required to sort through complex claims and counter-claims about public policy.
It's all well and good for a Perry Bacon to say the information is out there, people should go find it. But Perry Bacon is a political reporter for the Washington Post -- it's his job to know where to find that information and what it means. That is not the case for an accountant in Omaha or a math teacher in San Antonio or a construction worker in Pittsburgh. They don't have the time or the resources or the expertise to do so. Frankly, it's an amazingly elitist attitude for Bacon to assume that because he (a person who gets paid to do things like visit "factcheck.org and cites [sic] like that") has time to check out false claims, so does a single mother working a retail job. You have to be incredibly out of touch to think, as a political reporter whose job it is to research these things, that everyone else has the time and ability to do so, too. To think that readers should be able to -- and should have to -- go figure out on their own whether Barack Obama is Muslim, for example. (He isn't.)
What does Bacon think people do when they "spend a lot of time shopping for cars" and iPads? They seek guidance from people who have expertise about cars and electronics -- friends, relatives, and media like Consumer Reports. That's what Perry Bacon and the Washington Post should be when people need information about health care reform and tax policy -- a resource people can rely on, like Consumer Reports or PC World or whatever. That's what the public needs. (And, for the millionth time, doing it once is not enough.)
And if that isn't what Perry Bacon and the Washington Post think their role in the world is, I have to wonder: What would they say they do here? What value do they bring their readers, if not a solid understanding of important issues?
In November 2007 the Washington Post published an article by staff writer Perry Bacon that detailed "rumors and e-mails circulating on the Internet [that] continue to allege that Obama (D-Ill.) is a Muslim." Bacon and the Post drew widespread criticism for failing to make clear in the article that Barack Obama is not, in fact, Muslim.
Deborah Howell, the Washington Post's Ombudsman at the time, weighed in:
My problems with the story by National Desk political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. and the headline ("Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him") were that Obama's connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn't included in the story.
Post media critic Howard Kurtz also took issue with the article:
Post editors say they were trying to knock down the Obama-is-a-Muslim rumor, but I don't believe the piece was well executed. It didn't read like a debunking piece. There was too much about Obama "denying" or "disputing" allegations rather than just branding them false. This was particularly true in the case of the madrassa he allegedly attended as a child. That charge is bogus, as a CNN interview with a top official at the Indonesian school demonstrated, and the Post story failed to make that clear, in my view.
After all that, you would think the Post would be careful about printing claims that Obama is Muslim without making clear those claims are false, wouldn't you? Take a look at how today's Washington Post describes a recent Tea Party meeting in Tennessee:
About 40 people came to the meeting. They cheered when the organizer, Vince DiCello, told a long-winded joke about a new metal called Pelosium, after Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ("its mass keeps getting heavier"). And they murmured in disapproval when he passed around a photograph of Obama with his shoes off -- evidence, DiCello said, that the president prays with Muslims but not Christians ("That's because he is a Muslim," one audience member called out).
No, the Post didn't give any indication whatsoever that Obama is not a Muslim. Not even a denial.
For some reason, it seems difficult for reporters at the Washington Post to understand that debunking a lie occasionally isn't good enough; you have to make clear that it is a lie every time you mention it. Unless, of course, you want people to believe the lie.
Following is a list of criticism of Democrats by Republicans that is included in the Washington Post's article about the GOP's strategy for tomorrow's health care summit:
And here are the Democratic responses to those criticisms the Post included:
Finally, here are the criticisms of Republicans by Democrats that the Post included:
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon, on the health care legislation passed by the House and the Senate:
At the core of it, the Democratic plans don't do a lot for people who already have insurance, a point the Republicans will make repeatedly.
Oh, really? Here's the Washington Post's report on Senate passage:
Senate Democrats approved landmark legislation just after sunrise Christmas Eve that would transform the nation's health-care system by requiring people without insurance to obtain coverage and protecting those who have it from the most unpopular private insurance practices.
The bills' scope is vast, but Democrats are counting on consumer-friendly provisions -- including some that would take effect right away -- as selling points to a skeptical public. In the Senate bill, sick uninsured people with preexisting medical conditions could immediately obtain private coverage through state-based high-risk insurance pools, and insurers could no longer deny coverage to children under age 18 with preexisting conditions. Small businesses with fewer than 25 employees would become eligible for tax credits to purchase insurance for their workers. Adults 26 years old or younger could remain on their parents' policies.
Six months after enactment of the plan, co-payments and deductibles on preventive services, including physical examinations, immunizations, and mammograms, would be eliminated for everyone. Insurers would be barred from dropping beneficiaries when they become sick and from imposing lifetime limits on coverage.
But Bacon's claim that the legislation doesn't "do a lot for people who already have health insurance" doesn't just ignore specific provisions that directly help people who already have insurance -- it ignores the fact that they may not have that insurance forever, and it ignores the indirect benefits that stand to gain from refrom. Here's a Washington Post overview of what health care reform could mean for people who already have insurance:
You can't just ignore these things when assessing whether reform would "do a lot for people who already have health insurance."
It's hard to imagine that a political reporter could have as much faith in politicians as the Washington Post's Perry Bacon seems to. I've previously noted Bacon's insistence on taking politicians at their word, even when their claims have been shown to be false. And his jaw-dropping refusal to consider the possibility that politicians may occasionally be influenced by campaign contributions.
Now, take a look at this exchange from Bacon's online Q&A this week:
Arlington, Va.: Nelson was a health insurance company executive before he ran for governor.
Lieberman gets a lot of campaign donations from Aetna, whose CEO said they are jacking up premiums to increase their profit margins even though it would mean up to 650,000 people losing their coverage.
Perry Bacon Jr.: Doesn't Chris Dodd get money from insurance companies? Isn't Blanch Lincoln, not a former insurance executive, also opposing the public opinion, as are lots of House members, many of whom also didn't work in the insurance industry?
Wow. Is Perry Bacon really suggesting that because some politicians vote against the interests of their donors, no politician is ever influenced by campaign contributions? That's really the only way to read his response; otherwise, what would Chris Dodd and Blanche Lincoln have to do with a question about Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman?
And Bacon's use of Blanche Lincoln as an example of a politician who opposes the public option despite a lack of ties to the insurance industry is absolutely hilarious, given the campaign contributions she's taken from the industry, and her ties to industry lobbyists. (To be clear: I have no idea what Lincoln's motivations are, but Bacon's suggestion that she lacks ties to the insurance industry is absurd. Just the reasoning he uses to dismiss suggestions that Nelson and Lieberman are motivated by campaign contributions is absurd, regardless of whether they are.)
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon argues that media focus on Tiger Woods and the Salahis does not distract from more important issues:
Perry Bacon Jr.: I would submit most Americans can follow Tiger, the Salahis, health care and Afghanistan in the same week. It's not that complicated. I think most people aren't following the date to date details of health care because it's fairly complicated and some of it (the abortion language in the bill) won't affect them. But my guess is everywhere in America people know about Tiger, the White House dinner controvery and that the president is increasing troops in Afghanistan.
Bacon more or less rebuts himself, but it's worth piling on for a moment.
Just this morning, Bacon's Post colleague Ezra Klein noted that two-thirds of Americans don't think they could explain what the public option is, which is probably lower than the number who could not explain it. (I do not find this surprising. Not one bit. And it is, in large part, a result of the media doing an abysmal job of explaining health care.)
As Klein added:
And so far as health-care reform goes, the public option is fairly simple, and undeniably prominent. Imagine how many could explain the exchanges, or the mandate, or the benefit package ...
But Bacon seems to be satisfied if people have a passing, superficial awareness of issues. Look at his last sentence: "people know ... that the president is increasing troops in Afghanistan." Ok, but what do people know about the fact that he is doing so? Do they know why? Do they know how? Do they have any understanding of the pros and cons of the decision? Probably not.
But, it's true that, if you think that all the public needs to know is "health care is being debated" or "the president is sending more troops to Afghanistan," the news media does a reasonably good job of keeping them informed.
Last week, Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon suggested GOP Sen. George Voinovich would vote against health care reform because he is a "strong fiscal conservative." As I noted at the time, that's an odd use of the label "fiscal conservative," given that health care reform would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, reduce the deficit.
Well, today, a Post reader asked Bacon about that:
I didn't understand you last week: Perry, in last week's chat there was a strange back-and-forth & wondered if you might clarify it for us today? Here goes:
"Arlington, VA: Of all the Senators, only Voinowich of Ohio, a Republican, did not vote. As he voted on other legislation that day, could the non-vote indicate that he might be supportive of the health care bill?
Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm pretty sure he will be a no, he's retiring, but known as a strong fiscal conservative."
But the CBO says the Senate health care bill would actually - reduce - the deficit, so why does being a "strong fiscal conservative" make Voinovich likely to vote - against - legislation that would reduce the deficit.
Do you really think a strong "fiscal conservative" has any business voting against deficit-reducing health care reform measures?
washingtonpost.com: Post Politics: Senate brings health-care bill to floor
Perry Bacon Jr.: I suspect Voinovich will say the bill costs almost $1 trillion a year* and shouldn't be passed. This is the GOP view of the bill. I will let everyone define fiscal conservative on their own.
Oh, come on. Perry Bacon introduced the phrase "fiscal conservative" to the discussion, offering it up as a reason why someone would vote against the bill. And now he says everyone can define it for themselves? What an absurd cop-out.
Bacon owns the phrase. He should tell us what he meant by it, and explain why fiscal conservatives oppose things that reduce the deficit (and, in doing so, consider what that says about fiscal conservatives' anti-deficit rhetoric), or he should simply say that he screwed up and shouldn't have used the phrase. But he can't use the label as an explanation for Voinovich's vote, then pretend it isn't his responsibility to define the label.
* As Bacon later acknowledged, "$1 trillion a year" is obviously false.
Arlington, VA: Of all the Senators, only Voinowich of Ohio, a Republican, did not vote. As he voted on other legislation that day, could the non-vote indicate that he might be supportive of the health care bill?
Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm pretty sure he will be a no, he's retiring, but known as a strong fiscal conservative.
Bacon didn't bother to explain why being a "strong fiscal conservative" makes Voinovich likely to vote against legislation that would reduce the deficit.
I'm fine with "fiscally conservative" becoming synonymous with "running up massive deficits" -- that is what conservatives have done for the past few decades. But I doubt that's what Bacon meant. So why does he think a fiscal conservative should vote against deficit-reducing health care reform?
Here's a question Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon was asked during today's online Q&A:
Richmond, Va.: Watching ABC this morning and having them highlight things in the bill, I see that this is far from socialism. It seems to be an attempt at fairness in the insurance market. Can we have an honest debate now or will the tea party corporate warriors still rule the airways?
And here's Bacon's response:
Perry Bacon Jr.: I guess it depends on the meaning of socialism. The Tea Party people are alive and well and will continue to be a major force in our politics. Not sure if the Senate Republicans will show up at a rally with them like the House guys, but they will be involved.
So Bacon's questioner notes that right-wing cries of socialism are over-heated, and Bacon rushes to defend them. Maybe this is what Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli meant when he said the Post should be more responsive to conservatives.
Baltimore: The filibuster is out of control. Why should 40 Republicans get to veto what the majority wants? Do you think we'll ever get filibuster reform? It wasn't always like this -- filibusters used to be rare.
Perry Bacon Jr.: The Democrats filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007.
Bacon's questioner is right. Filibusters used to be much more rare. It's hard to believe it's even possible that a Washington Post political reporter would be unaware of this basic fact. And yet, here we are, with Bacon pretending there's nothing unusual about the Republicans' use of the filibuster.
Then another questioner (who apparently reads this blog) noted that last week Bacon wrote "I think we may have misstated the strength of the opposition to the public option in the first place" and asked Bacon to explain why the media got it wrong. Here's Bacon's response:
Perry Bacon Jr.: I'm skeptical of polling on issues as complicated as the public option that I think I fairly complicated. I'm still convinced the most energy around that issue is conservatives opposed it, as opposed to liberals backing it. Polls often don't influence what Congress does because polls don't reflect intensity, who is calling offices, etc. I think the big thing here was not the polls, but the intensity of the public option supporters in Nevada, as they pressed Harry Reid on this issue.
I'm sorry, but ... Huh? Bacon said (last week) he and the rest of the media overstated the strength of opposition to the public option. Asked to explain how and why that happened, he says he's skeptical of polling, that he's "still convinced the most energy around that issue is conservatives opposed it," then says "the big thing here was ... The intensity of the public option supporters in Nevada." Not only is that seemingly random and contradictory, it doesn't have anything to do with the question.
The candidates Democrats recruited in 2006 and 2008 are pro-life and pro-gun
Following the November 7  midterm elections, Media Matters for America examined the policy positions of those Democratic House candidates who, as of the morning of November 8, had defeated Republican incumbents or been elected to open seats previously held by Republicans.
Only five of the 27 candidates describe themselves as "pro-life."
Connecticut, born and bred: How come none of you ace political reporters are asking Joe Lieberman a very simple and obvious question - why is he against the public option when polls clearly show that more than 60 percent of Connecticut residents support it? Aren't elected officials supposed to represent the beliefs of their constituents? We ain't Texas - start listening to us Joe, or in 3 years I guarantee that you'll be out of office.
Perry Bacon Jr.: Well, Connecticut, lots of poeple [sic] there didn't like the Iraq War, and Lieberman still has his seat. I take him at his word he thinks the public option is bad public policy.
Why would you do that? Lieberman's stated reasons for opposing the public option appear to be bunk. Why would a reporter think it's appropriate to take "at his word" a politician whose words seem to be at odds with reality?
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon, giving undue attention to right-wing media critics:
Perry Bacon Jr.: The New Mexico governor Bill Richardsson was basically denied a Cabinet post on the basis of a scandal for which little has proven. The Post has highlighted the problems of Jack Abramoff, a mainly Republican lobbyist, but also John Murtha, a veteran Democrat. Not sure I see much here, although I know Andrew Brietbart, who I worked on these ACORN videos and is a big media critic who I wrote a piece about last week, claims conservatives scandals are covered much more than liberal ones.
Sigh. Why would Bacon take that seriously? Why would he think Breitbart's claim is so important, it deserves to be the only media criticism he mentions? And how can any Washington Post reporter cite complaints that "conservatives scandals are covered much more than liberal ones" without responding with the words "Whitewater" or "Lewinsky"? Or, for that matter, "Harken"?
Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon, during an online Q&A today:
Perry Bacon Jr.: The public option shift was dramatic and in many ways, I don't quite know what happened. I think we may have misstated the strength of the opposition to the public option in the first place, but i think the members changed their view on this as well.
Well, that has been obvious for months. What Bacon doesn't address, and should, is why the media overstated the strength of the opposition to the public option. What could they do better the next time? Does this indicate they listen to the wrong "experts"?
It's not like there haven't been clear indications all along that the media was overstating the strength of opposition to the public option. Why didn't they pay attention? Bacon gave no indication that he's considering that question.
During an online Q&A last week, Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon was asked about the inconsistency between "The Republicans, media talking heads, and some conservative Democrats" who say they oppose a public option as part of health care reform because they are concerned about costs, and studies finding such a public option would save money. The questioner suggested the real reason for opposition might be that the politicians are "bought and paid for by the insurance industry."
In response, Bacon essentially denied that "conservative Democrats and Republicans" have made a cost argument against the public option. That's flatly, unambiguously false, as anyone who has followed the health care debate should know.
Bacon was then asked a follow-up question pointing out the inconsistency in the claims of reform opponents. At that point, Bacon said "the conservative Democrats simply feel they can't back the public option for political reasons." That didn't make much sense, either, since polls show the public option is popular among those conservative Democrats' constituents, as I pointed out at the time.
That brings us to today's online Q&A with Perry Bacon:
Tuckerton, NJ: Considering the majority of Americans want some type of public healthcare option and that 52-percent of Nevada residents feel the same way (as per latest Research 2000 poll), what on earth would prevent Harry Reid from including it in Senate compromise bill? Is he that politically tone deaf?
Perry Bacon Jr.: For whatever reason, some of the conservative Democrats in the Senate aren't wild about a public opinion. (I would suggest the politics of their states, where they have to get Republican-leaning voters, but I know you will cite more polls saying people in Louisiana want the public option. I assume politicians have a keen sense of their own electoral position and the moderate Democrats are weary of this for a reason, but I digress) I'm not sure getting the public opinion in the bill will really hurt Reid in Nevada.
Extraordinary. Bacon "would suggest" the "politics of their states" is the issue, except that he knows he'd get called on it by someone who would point out the public option's popularity in those states. But instead of internalizing that poll data and looking for alternate explanation, Bacon prefers to "assume" the politicians know something the data doesn't show.
At no point does it cross Bacon's mind that the real reason might have something to do with campaign contributions. Instead, he just keeps offering up a series of nonsensical claims, spanning two weeks, only to abandon each one as it is disproved. But he never waivers from one thing: Defending the opponents of reform any way he can.
Bacon claimed public option opponents have not made a cost argument. False.
Then Bacon suggested the constituents of the reform opponents don't want a public option. Polls show that to be false.
So Bacon then said we shouldn't pay attention to the polls; we should just trust that the politicians know their constituents better than poll data does.
At what point might it occur to Bacon that maybe those who oppose reform have been making incorrect arguments and oppose policies their constituents want -- and that maybe he should start looking for reasons why?
UPDATE: Bacon, later in today's Q&A: "I wish the public option advocates would stop acting if the media is at fault here." Gee, I wonder why Bacon encounters people who think that?
UPDATE 2: More Bacon:
Boston: "I assume politicians have a keen sense of their own electoral position and the moderate Democrats are weary of this for a reason, but I digress"
I realize we don't want to be crass. But these small, poor state Senators are also being lavished with cash by interests who benefit from preserving the status quo or not competing with a Public Health Insurance plan. Add to those gifts and incentives a great deal of media coverage and one could be led to think their opposition is not so motivated by their keen understanding of their state--most Senators know they have a 95% chance of getting re-elected no matter what.
Perry Bacon, Jr.: I don't have a list of the top members of Congress getting money from the insurance industry, but there are plenty of members who get money from health care companies who also support the public option. Some of the Blue Dogs live in districts McCain won by 15 points. They live in places where voters are more conservative, and the Republicans have branded the public option, rightly or wrongly, as a major liberal initiative.
Bacon is all over the map at this point. First he suggests that in the states/districts in question, the public option is not popular. Then he says he would suggest it again, but he knows people would produce polls contradicting that claim. Then he goes back to making unsupported claims about public opinion in unspecified districts.
He's consistent about one thing, though: Have you ever seen a reporter this adamant that campaign contributions do not influence politicians positions? Ever?