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What happens when reporters disdain fact and logic

When an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, I spent my career there in journalism, as a reporter, copy editor, and finally as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. In the years since, I have been interviewed hundreds of different times by dozens of different journalists from newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and television stations, all the way from local outlets to those in Washington, Berlin, and Tokyo. Having practiced it and been around it for over two decades, one of the things I have learned is that a fair number of these folks don’t really understand what they’re reporting on.

Consider that most people in the profession have journalism degrees, which focuses on the craft of reporting rather than substantive knowledge in any area in which they would report. Further, particularly with electronic media (stories being brief by nature especially with television tied into visuals) there’s not much in the way of depth and their news menu changes daily. In short, unless one does a lot of study outside of working hours and is allowed to concentrate in particular areas, reporters aren’t going to know much about the topics they cover, which not only means they won’t ask the really vital questions but that they’ll report questionable arguments with dubious conclusions.

(Fortunately, informed reporters are out there and it is a pleasure to serve as a source to them. But they seem to be becoming rarer and rarer.)

The area which this occurs the most frequently and detrimentally is in stories involving business and economics. One of my constant disappointments in academia, outside of colleges of business (but even sometimes within), is encountering the amount of sheer ignorance a number of highly educated people have about economics. But it’s even worse with many in the media, and the Associated Press’ Adam Nossiter’s remarks about President George W. Bush’s stop in Shreveport are Exhibit A of this malady.

“Analysis” stories like this pose some risks for a beat reporter like Nossiter who on the beat are presumed to follow the journalistic canons of fairness and objectivity (and should also know a bit about the subject area they regularly cover). With its derogatory tone concerning Bush this might call many to question whether the stories he writes regarding Bush (or Republicans, or conservatism, or political ideas connected to Bush) in fact are impartial and honest. His adherence to these canons becomes more questionable when he does such a poor job in logic and with fact in this piece.

Let’s review the multitude of problems with this piece. What follows are his statements, italicized in quotes, with then commentary on them.

  • In regards to the nature of the event, the President’s visit to Shreveport: “What is important here are the trappings of reality, not whether there is anything real about it.”

    Already we are tipped off that this guy is an opponent of the president. Fair enough, but his column is credible only if now he can prove this – that the president’s plan is flawed in concept and assumptions. He can do this by logical presentation with points that are relevant to the president’s argument with clear facts. It also belies an attitude that the president seeks to make up for a lack of credibility through pomp and circumstance.

  • Answering a question he poses, “Why not simply give a sober speech on behalf of your ideas at some pre-existing forum, and be done with it:” “It's an idea whose necessity is, to put it gently, fiercely disputed — and not just by Democrats. There are economists and even some Republicans who aren't buying. First, they don't agree with Bush's notion that Social Security faces imminent crisis, and second, they sharply dispute the idea that private accounts will be beneficial. Polls show a majority of citizens share these doubts.”

    One of the great tragedies of intellectual thought in modern times is the notion now so prevalent that just because there is some dispute about an issue that must mean that there is more than one “right” answer to it, that all answers are equally “valid.” Or, another way of putting it, that a fact supported by incontrovertible evidence is no more valuable than any opinion, no matter how divorced from reality it might be from reality, merely because the opinion is uttered

    This paragraph is a classic example. So what if Democrats, and even some Republicans, don’t “buy it?” The fact remains, unless changes are made, Social Security does face imminent crisis, no matter how loudly and often opponents of the idea may bray otherwise. It simply is an actuarial fact. And so what if a majority of the public “doubts” the idea of private accounts. These may be political problems, but they are not problems with the validity of the president’s plan itself. I can go around long and loud stating “2+2=5,” but that doesn’t make it so.

  • On Bush’s stating that funding for the program doesn’t come from the depleted Social Security trust fund, but is pay-as-you-go: “But he didn't mention what the critics say: that Social Security's trust fund is something real, that it contains rock-solid government bonds, that interest and principal on them would easily cover any Social Security shortfall, and that if the U.S. government ever (unimaginably) defaulted on these bonds, it wouldn't just be the old-age pension that would come crashing down, but the country's financial structure as well.”

    This comment simply is disingenuous. What the president is pointing out is that there is no current asset pool of money waiting to be tapped. Instead, starting long ago these funds were borrowed away by government for its spending and the bonds that represent the fund have to be paid back by the government – meaning ultimately by taxpayers. These are the hundreds of billions of “transitional” dollars that will have to be spent regardless of any attempt to reform Social Security. It’s those “missing” dollars which are the problem, and others that will be added to them if the system continues to be underfunded, not that there will be any default (this shift in presumed argument being a “straw man,” common in this debate). Nossiter either doesn’t have the financial acumen to understand this simple fact and see through the fallaciousness of this argument, or he is being dishonest in his zeal to attack the plan.

  • The “best” appeared last in the column, because when Bush pitched his plan he made: “…no mention of the argument that a small tax increase now, or a slight adjustment to previously enacted cuts, would cover any shortfall. "Investing in the private markets, you'll be able to get a better rate of return," the President declared. Only if stocks yield around 7 percent, after inflation, economists say; anything but a sure thing.”

    We get two-for-one here. First, the fact that Bush does not mention less palatable alternatives to his does not make his any less valid, nor would these tax increases or cuts be small or solve the problem. Then, the second part about a 7 percent after inflation yield that “economists say [is] anything but a sure thing” is an attempt to fool the reader into thinking the extreme, improbable case is much more of a possibility than it really is – or that you would need a 7 percent rate of return which simply is untrue.

    The facts:
  • The rate of return on Social Security has averaged 1.8 percent, and over may years a rate not much higher than this would make the system solvent.
  • Except for the very shortest terms, any stock fund of quality equities or bond fund of high-grade debt has beaten the government’s return over Social Security’s history.
  • The projected custodial fee to be charged on the privatized government accounts will be microscopic, well below that of the private sector and a fraction of that effectively taken by government bureaucracy now in administering Social Security – reducing the required rate of return for solvency.

    Throughout, Nossiter keeps trying to convey the impression that a lot of wishful thinking or assumptions are being made by the president, which therefore have to be made up for by rousing spectacle, when the truth is very much the opposite. His plan is solid, and it is telling that opponents of it continually resort either to misreporting, rhetorical tricks, or to insinuating it is all a con job to deflect the public from this reality.Except for the very shortest terms, any stock fund of quality equities or bond fund of high-grade debt has beaten the government’s return over Social Security’s historyExcept for the very shortest terms, any stock fund of quality equities or bond fund of high-grade debt has beaten the government’s return over Social Security’s history
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