Blaming the Audience: Almost Always a Bad Idea

Marketplace’s Heidi N. Moore lays into a listener for getting upset about Wall Street wanting to cut her entitlements.

In a Tumblr post responding to the listener’s letter to Marketplace, Moore says she and the rest of the press are just reporting what powerful people are saying, whether you want to hear it or not.

Well, take your hands off your ears. Read the business section. Read the political stories. Are you listening? We are not weaving tales. We are here to tell you what people are saying that’s going to affect your life. That’s our job. And when you shoot the messenger, you’re wasting your energy and mine.

And when you shoot the audience, you are helping… whom?

Let’s unpack this. One problem is that passing along what (powerful) “people are saying” is only part of the journalist’s job. You can’t really expect your readers—who, unlike us, aren’t paid to sit and read news and commentary all day long—to figure out what’s really going on by telling them “X said we need to this about the debt,” or “I have talked to a lot of people on Wall Street and … they say they won’t take this deficit-cutting talk seriously until they see the government cutting programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

So, is there another point of view? Yes! Maybe that’s what the listener, not unreasonably, was asking.

Like the GOP and Wall Street, apparently, Moore’s pain here comes all from the spending side, with nary a mention of revenues:

For Treasury bonds to stay strong, the U.S. has to keep its credit rating. For the U.S. to keep its credit rating, the $14 trillion deficit has to be cut by $6 to $8 trillion over the next decade or so. Let’s think about the math there. $8 trillion American dollars.

How are you going to do that? You can end every war and de-fund the Pentagon and you still wouldn’t get there.

So we know it’s going to hurt like hell. It’s going to involve programs that have become part of the fabric of our society and things we’ve come to depend on. It’s going to involve education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s just the math.

That’s just “the math”? I hope most journalists don’t really believe this, because it’s wrong.

First, that $14 trillion is the accumulated national debt, not the deficit. And I don’t know where the “$6 to $8 trillion” figure comes from. S&P, the only one threatening a downgrade, said three weeks ago that $4 trillion would do (and by the way, “defunding” the pentagon, if that’s what anyone is suggesting, would save roughly $6 trillion to $7 trillion, for whatever that’s worth).

The CBPP, which, importantly, has numbers to back up its argument, says we could prevent the debt from rising over the next decade by simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire with no cuts to entitlements. Remember, this would simply take us back to Clinton-era tax rates. Here’s what would happen, according to the CBO, if we abided by current law:

And other people who have done “the math” over the long run (beyond the next decade Moore is talking about here) believe that it’s basically health care costs that have to be reined in, while Social Security should be fine).

And all this is quite apart from the deeper argument about whether even presenting both sides is enough. Even if you add in “X said this, but Y disagreed, “X and Y are in partisan deadlock. That’s politics for you,” You’re still stuck with he said/she said journalism.

Here are some numbers from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, showing—who knew?—that most of the deficits over the next ten years are from the Bush tax cuts—both for the rich and the not-rich.

Which is why you could solve the problem without entitlement cuts. Somebody should tell Wall Street.

Moore’s been an ardent defender of the business press in the past, particularly over whether it served readers well in the runup to the crisis. We’ve had our disagreements and that’s okay.

But even those who have paid attention to this story haven’t been well served by the press. And I doubt you’d find many readers or listeners who would tell you different.

So while ripping the audience is almost always a bad idea, it’s really something when coverage has fallen well short.

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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: , , , ,