Journalists in the service of Pete Peterson

Press Criticism | ByKevin C. Brown | Budget deficit, Media

January 16, 2013 — Each spring since 2010, some of Washington’s A-list politicians assemble in the capital to submit to questions from some of the media’s A-list journalists on the future of the federal fiscal policy.

These interviews, though, aren’t conducted on the steps of Congress, in the Washington bureaus of the nation’s newspapers, or in the television studios of major networks, but rather at private “Fiscal Summits” convened by Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire former commerce secretary and co-founder of the Blackstone private equity group.

“It seems to me as a layman that that [the crisis of 2008 and 2009] did not produce the kind of sense of ‘we need to put our house in order, we need to talk more about sacrifice, we need to look at the long-term,’ and my personal analysis is the reason is unemployment did not reach a high enough rate.” — Jon Meacham, 2010

Peterson, however, is hardly a disinterested and dispassionate observer of such discussions. In fact, he is now beginning his fourth decade of arguing that there is no alternative to enacting “entitlement reform” (read: cut Social Security and Medicare) and “tax reform” (read: raise regressive taxes and lower progressive ones) in the name of curbing the country’s “unsustainable” debt and deficits.

An essential and successful element of the Peterson strategy is to create an environment where it is widely if not universally believed that there is no alternative to his vision. In this view, it’s “not realistic” to believe the country can afford the same programs it once did. Those who are prepared to be “adults” will look at these “hard truths” without flinching and recognize that it is time to take citizens-have-to-do-with-less medicine.

The conceit is that those with “courage” will see past narrow, partisan concerns and embrace an ideal: a bipartisan consensus that has the strength to demand “shared sacrifice” from a childish and selfish populace.

A review of the proceedings of the Fiscal Summits of the last three years makes agonizingly clear that most of the journalists who conducted interviews or moderated panel discussions both reflected and amplified the Peterson worldview — entirely unselfconsciously, it would seem.

So, for example, Lesley Stahl, the CBS “60 Minutes” reporter, was fully a part of the Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson deficit-cutting team during her interview with both men: “You are going to have to raise taxes and cut things, big things, put restrictions on Social Security. Everybody knows that.”

Virtually none of the reporters thought to ask about or suggest an alternative path, such as preserving Social Security benefits and bolstering the system’s reserve by raising the cap of wages subject to Social Security taxes (currently annual wages above approximately $110,000 are not subject to any Social Security tax).

Journalists working at Peterson
Fiscal Summits, 2010-2012

Maria Bartiromo, 2011 (host, CNBC’s “Closing Bell with Maria Bartiromo”)

Tom Brokaw, 2012 (former anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News)

Erin Burnett, 2012 (host of CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront”)

John F. Harris, 2012 (editor-in-chief of Politico)

Gwen Ifill, 2011, 2010 (senior correspondent of “PBS NewsHour”)

Ezra Klein, 2011 (columnist, Washington Post)

Jon Meacham, 2010 (former editor-in-chief, Newsweek)

Bob Schieffer, 2010 (host, CBS “Face the Nation”)

Lesley Stahl, 2010 (reporter, CBS “60 Minutes”)

George Stephanopoulos, 2012 (host, ABC’s “This Week”)

David Wessel, 2012, 2011 (economics editor, Wall Street Journal)

George Will, 2011 (columnist, Washington Post)

Judy Woodruff, 2012, 2011 (host, “PBS NewsHour”)

And most questioning proceeded either on the false assumption that deficits were derived from excessive spending on entitlements or as though they had mysteriously, but inevitably, come to pass.

Many journalists fairly shouted their personal desire to see greater cooperation and “compromise,” with groups realizing the importance of submerging their interests to the greater good. Who should do the submerging? In 2012, Tom Brokaw had a suggestion in the form of a question to former President Bill Clinton: after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed through a bill undermining the right of union members to collectively bargain, shouldn’t those workers have just sat down and negotiated with Walker as, Brokaw said, “has been traditionally done in this country” instead of “gather[ing] outside the capitol”?

There were a couple of exceptions to the rule. In a session moderated by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post in 2011, Klein posed a number of questions that reflected an unwillingness to operate from within the Peterson framework. For example, Klein asked New York Times columnist David Brooks whether, instead of blaming Americans for simply wanting benefits without paying for them, the causes of the debt should be located in the Bush tax cuts, two unfunded wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), and the federal government’s emergency response to the financial crisis.

Judy Woodruff, of the PBS NewsHour, generally asked questions from within the Peterson frame, but, at one point in 2012, posed a question that perhaps all the journalists should have been thinking about as well. She asked Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, Jr. (D-Md.) if “Democrats like you, by participating in forums like this one that is all focused on austerity, on cutting the deficit and the debt…really become also window dressing for a conservative agenda that is anti-jobs and anti-recovery and wrongheaded economics?”

Over the course of the three years of fiscal summits that Remapping Debate examined, the other journalist interviewers and moderators hewed strictly to the conventional Peterson wisdom. What follows are annotated illustrations of this recurring problem.

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