This weekend the Internet was all a-twitter over a piece that The Washington Post ran right before New Year’s, headlined: “Support grows for tackling nation’s debt.” The story, produced by a new publication called The Fiscal Times, was laced with quotes supporting a new bipartisan commission, proposed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), with broad power to cut federal spending and increase taxes—in other words, to make government leaner by reforming the tax code and curbing outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those are the social programs that eat up huge chunks of the federal budget and have always been juicy targets of the deficit hawks. It’s possible that language creating such a commission could be added to the debt limit legislation up for a Senate vote on Jan. 20, or it could be added to the President’s next budget request in early February.
The story reported that President Obama “has voiced support for such a plan”; that thirty-five Republican and Democratic senators, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, have signed on; and that Nancy Pelosi, once “an ardent opponent of the idea,” may now accept such a commission, which would be composed of sixteen members of Congress and two administration officials. If fourteen of the eighteen commission members agree on reforming the tax code or cutting Medicare and Social Security, Congress would have to immediately consider their recommendations and give them an up or down vote without amendment. To some, the body could deal with that pesky problem of entitlement spending without much debate or discussion. Opponents see the commission as a stalking horse to make serious changes that could undercut Social Security as a social insurance program once and for all.
The story omitted any reference to the considerable opposition from some forty organizations like the NAACP, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, NOW, and the AARP, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, who isn’t keen on the idea of putting Social Security and Medicare at risk. And while it did admit there is “widespread disagreement on how to respond” to the country’s mounting public debt, readers would have a hard time gleaning from the Post story that the proposed commission faced any resistance at all.
At the end, readers learned that The Fiscal Times, identified as an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health care, and international economics issues, produced the article for WaPo. The Post did not reveal to its readers the pedigree of one of the venture’s initial funders: Peter G. Peterson. In a December press release, Peterson said that the news operation, dubbed “The Source for All Things Fiscal,” will be supplying content to other online publications and newspapers. “The Fiscal Times is a new entity whose time has come, an independently supported publication comprised of top journalists and opinion makers covering the critical economic issues of our time,” he said.
Peterson had a long career on Wall Street, and was commerce secretary under Richard Nixon and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. What’s relevant to WaPo’s news story, though, is that Peterson is the founding president of The Concord Coalition, a group that hasn’t been shy about speaking out against entitlements like Social Security. The piece quotes the group’s executive director, Robert L. Bixby, but Peterson’s involvement in the group goes unmentioned. It also refers to data from the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, a year-old partnership set up to “address a number of shortcomings in the current budget rules, concepts and processes.” That’s jargon for changing the rules of how entitlements like Social Security would work. Again, no disclosure here from The Fiscal Times.
A full disclosure is required here. CJR, which runs partially on the philanthropic model (in addition to the advertising and subscription model), will soon announce the hiring of a part-time fellow funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The purpose, as the grant proposal puts it, will be to “encourage the business media to look at the consequences of the government bailout and the larger financial crisis, which is occuring in the context of two wars, potential expansive and expensive reforms such as health care, and amid rising entitlement spending.” The fellow will produce stories for cjr.org, via two of our news desks—The Audit, our online business desk, and Campaign Desk, our politics and policy desk.