Audit Notes: Unnamed Source No-No, “Grassroots” Wisconsin, Kinsley

The Washington Post gives us a case study today in how not to use anonymous sources.

It reports that the SIGTARP, the TARP bailout program’s special inspector general, is quitting. That’s significant news because Neil Barofsky has been an aggressive watchdog of the Geithner Treasury and has been (justifiably) scathing in its criticisms of its actions.

So what does the Post do? It lets an anonymous Treasury dork slime Barofsky without backing it up:

“We’re fine with critics,” said one Treasury official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more candidly. “[But] he’s been consistently wrong about a lot of big things.”

Like… can you name one?

The Post shouldn’t have used this anonymous quote unless its source was willing to back it up with evidence. Without that it’s just propaganda.

— Politico is good to show how the controversy over government pay is no spontaneous thing. Right-wing groups have been laying the groundwork for this one for years.

“We go back a long way on this in Wisconsin, and in other states, as well,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which for years has been urging its members to push their elected officials to reduce government salaries and benefits, and which has spent more than $340,000 on television and radio ads supporting the push by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip union bargaining rights from state employees.

But while Phillips’s group has been the focus of liberal outrage, owing largely to its well-known connection to - and funding from - the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch, conservative activists say a more significant role may have been played by a network of free-enterprise, small-government think tanks in state capitals and Washington, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), Wisconsin’s MacIver Institute and Ohio’s Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.

The groups - which collectively have received tens of millions of dollars in funding from some of the biggest conservative donors in the country, including the Koch brothers, the DonorsTrust funds and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation (whose president chaired Walker’s campaign) - have considered the issue a top priority for the last few years.

You have to love these people’s propaganda about “grassroots” uprisings financed by reclusive billionaires:

Back in October 2007, when Americans for Prosperity held its first rally outside the same building, calling for then Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, to reduce state employee benefits and pensions, it drew only 500 people - and attracted 800 union counter-protestors.

“They were shocked and outraged that someone back then would actually build a grassroots event in Madison calling for reigning in pensions and benefits, because it was novel back then,” recalled Phillips.

And, naturally, much of the outrage ginned up over pension deficits is more likea story of misplaced blame and misleading numbers.

— Michael Kinsley rips New Mexico’s former Democratic Governor Bill Richardson for his op-ed in The New York Times praising corporate welfare for Hollywood.

Richardson, like most corporate welfare snake-oil salesmen before him, has bogus numbers. Kinsley, writing in the Los Angeles Times :

He says that 10,000 jobs and $4 billion “are huge numbers for a state with a population of only about 2.1 million.” You can say that again. If Richardson’s figures were correct — if every state had a similar program and every program achieved the same alleged success on a per capita basis — that would mean film subsidies would be adding $600 billion to the economy over eight years and would create 1.5 million jobs. Given that the entire movie production and distribution industry generates about $55 billion a year, it seems unlikely that this subsidy alone generates $75 billion a year (one-eighth of $600 billion) in new business. Similarly, it’s hard to see how the subsidy could add 1.5 million jobs to an industry that employs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 362,000 people.

Of course, as Kinsely points out, this corporate welfare is a race to the bottom for states—smokestack chasing that fills corporate coffers while draining taxes.

Why was Richardson writing about this? It was for a feature called “What We Learned in the Statehouse— Departing governors single out difficulties their successors face — and provide guidance on how to conquer them.”

That’s apparently the best Richardson can come up with: Give Hollywood tax breaks.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,