The NewsHour presented an interesting program the other night and the program’s customary balance format actually produced some illuminating journalism. It was The Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid vs. Andy Kohut, the pollster from the Pew Research Center. Host Judy Woodruff didn’t push Bendavid very hard—maybe that’s tough for one journalist to do to another. So Bendavid opined quite a bit on Republican and Democratic recalcitrance in striking a debt deal.
Woodruff began by asking Bendavid what a big deal would entail. He said the deal would entail “adjustments to things like Social Security and Medicare” and “some kind of tax increases” to achieve the $4 trillion negotiators were aiming for. “So, I think what they are talking about, essentially, is holding hands and jumping off a cliff,” he told her. Woodruff didn’t ask what adjustments to Social Security and Medicare he was talking about leaving viewers to speculate on what pols had in mind and if adjustments are a new euphemism for cuts.
Woodruff pressed on the tax front, though essentially covering ground that most other news outlets have stomped over. She asked how Bendavid interpreted what Republicans were prepared to do about them and if Republicans would vote for raising taxes. “Is that something Republicans are prepared to vote for?” she wanted to know. “Yes,” said Bendavid, they would “accept an increase in revenue” as long as some tax rates went down at the same time. He added that was part of the grand bargain (yet to materialize) and that Dems would have to accept “changes to Social Security.” Woodruff probed no further about which tax rates might go down and which changes—another euphemism—were on the table. How much stronger her segment would have been had she tackled the empty and imprecise language of her guest? Before turning to Kohut, she threw a softball: “Is there some feeling in the air that they are headed for some kind of an agreement?”
Woodruff pushed harder with Kohut, a plus for viewers. Kohut told Woodruff that the public concern about the debt and deficit was at an all-time high, but that they did not want to cut Medicare, Social Security, or even Medicaid: “People are willing to do a lot of things to reduce this deficit. But when it comes to entitlements, there’s no movement. It’s really rock solid when we see 2 to 1 margins.” Bendavid chimed in noting that people—even Democrats—are willing to accept far more cuts rather than tax increases. The public has the opposite opinion, Kohut replied: “People say raise taxes, raise costs, but don’t cut those benefits.” Was that opinion broadly held, Woodruff wanted to know? When Kohut said it was, she pushed further and asked about differences between Democrats and Republicans—a good question that gave Kohut a chance to repeat his findings:
There is a gap on this, but when you get such large 2-1 margins and you have this class division within the Republican Party, that is potentially big stuff come election time. There will be a huge cry and howl if benefits are seen to have been cut here.
A few days later another NewsHour show, with Gwen Ifill as host, gave viewers half a loaf in terms of hard questioning and follow-ups. Ifill asked her guest, Illinois Republican congressman Peter Roskam, if there was agreement that the debt ceiling should be raised. “There is an area of agreement that says that the trajectory of spending in Washington D.C. fundamentally has to change,” Roskam said. Trajectory—another euphemism?
As if to say ‘cut the crap,’ Ifill shot back: “Well we’re talking about cuts,” somewhere in the range of $4 trillion. Still, Roskam babbled on. Ifill challenged him. Then that word “trajectory” came up again. Roskam told viewers that Republicans had taken on Medicare. “For example,” said Roskam, “we said let’s deal with folks who are basically in my age group. I’m fifty years old. Take ages fifty-four and below and you come up with a different trajectory on Medicare. So House Republicans have taken those tough votes and I think are prepared to stand by them.” Ifill moved on to the topic of tough votes, leaving viewers figure out what the heck the “trajectory” was, as well as the rest of the congressman’s Medicare gobbledygook.
Speaking of gobbledygook, Ifill’s next guest showed that he had mastered it. Yet Ifill didn’t untangle much of it for her viewers, allowing Illinois senior senator Dick Durbin to make some rather ambiguous points. He harkened back to the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission that laid everything on the table in the way of cuts and revenue. “That’s the only thing that’s going to work here,” the senator said, and then moved to his main message: “We’re not going to attack the basic benefit structure of these programs,” meaning entitlements, of course. At another point, he said: “We can make these changes in entitlements and do it in a fashion that still preserves the basic benefits.” Still at another point, the senator said people on Medicare “want us to make sure at the end of the day, whatever changes we make, we preserve the basic benefit promises of those programs.”
You’d think that a three-time mention would prompt a question about what exactly he was talking about. What is the basic benefit structure Durbin said was sacrosanct? And what is the “real reform” he said his fellow Dems must accept? Those were things Ifill needed to pounce on. Adjustments, changes, trajectory, basic benefits, real reform—the empty words of carefully crafted political-speak, designed to make the public think one thing when those uttering them really mean another! Journos, especially those on the NewsHour, which likes to promote itself as an outlet that digs behind the news, need to try even harder to pierce their meaning. Given the importance of their news show, Woodruff and Ifill must keep pressing.
For more from Trudy Lieberman on entitlement reform, click here.