By Tracy Dingmann
We have written here before on Journal Watch about the time-honored separation of news coverage and editorial opinion to which – thankfully – most American newspapers still adhere.
Why is this separation important? Well, for newspapers that tout themselves as objective, keeping a firewall between news stories and the opinion page ensures that readers actually get objective news coverage – untainted by mere opinions, which are something quite different. Without a strictly-maintained firewall, for all we know, the news presented in the state’s “Paper of Record” could be shot through with manipulative propaganda.
On Aug. 25, someone else thought they noticed the same thing about the New York Times.
Wrong On Social Security
The Center for Economic Policy and Research, a research institute established in 1999 to “promote democratic debate on the most important economic and social issues that affect people’s lives,” noted that the Times carried a column by Matt Bai that got a few key facts about Social Security wrong.
The center was co-founded by economists Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, and its advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; Janet Gornick, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School and Director of the Luxembourg Income Study; Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and Eileen Appelbaum, Professor and Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.
In a blog post called “New York Times Ends Separation of News and Editorial Section in Attack on Social Security,” center co-director Dean Baker wrote:
The NYT has apparently decided to give up on the old-fashioned distinction between news and opinion running a piece by Matt Bai insisting that there is no alternative to cutting Social Security to deal with the federal debt. The piece includes the bizarre assertion that Treasury bonds are “often referred to as i.o.u.’s.”
This is of course absurd. The business pages of major newspapers are full of references to Treasury bonds all the time. The bonds are never referred to as “i.o.u.’s.”
The article then includes the bizarre assertion about government bonds that the only way for the government to make good on the bonds it has outstanding: “is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases — none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term.”
Bai’s opinion, it is radically at odds with perceptions in financial markets. These markets view it as almost inconceivable that the government will not honor its bonds, which is why the interest rate on long-term bonds is near its lowest level in the last 60 years.
While presenting what is supposed to be a non-partisan view of Social Security, remarkably Bai never once examines the program’s finances nor the financial situation of the people who would experience the cuts that are being considered.
It’s notable that the esteemed economists took such umbrage at Bai’s arguments – and they do have a point about the things he got wrong.
Here’s what I thought: It is not clear to me at all whether Bai’s pieces are supposed to be considered opinion or fact. He’s billed as a staff columnist at the Times, which would suggest that he is free to express his personal opinion in what he writes. But his columns don’t appear on the opinion page – they run elsewhere among the paper’s news stories.
So I guess for me, it’s the same kind of mildly queasy feeling I get when I read one of those “UpFront” pieces the Journal runs on the front page – the ones were you can’t tell whether a columnist is expressing their opinion or reporting straight news.
Journal readers are constantly writing in to complain because they’ve mistaken Leslie Linthicum’s wicked sarcasm for news or been confused by the way the paper wraps former investigative reporter (OR IS HE?) Thom Cole’s hit pieces in a vaguely column-y format.
If I have a point here, it’s this: It sure is hard to find straight news in the paper these days.