Newsweek’s Niall Ferguson debacle

A misleading cover story gets the wrong kind of buzz for Tina Brown's mag

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a cover story so comprehensively demolished as Newsweek’s disengenuous anti-Obama piece by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, who puts together a greatest-hits compilation of the right’s economic smears of the past three-plus years.

As I write this, Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover piece on why Obama’s presidency has failed has racked up 13,351 comments, 6,130 tweets, countless blog posts, and 19,000 “likes” on Facebook (one wonders how often a “dislike” button would have been pushed had it existed). Tina Brown is finally getting her rag talked about, at least. But at a high cost to its credibility.

It’s not hard to make the argument that Obama must go by assembling actual, you know, facts. Why did Ferguson need to utilize distortion, misdirection, and apparently, intentional falsehoods, to make his case?

Paul Krugman, who has battled (and defeated) Ferguson throughout the financial crisis, wrote yesterday that it was “unethical commentary,” pointing out that Ferguson was “deliberately misleading” readers about whether Obamacare would add to the deficit. Here’s the Ferguson quote Krugman flagged:

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.

While the CBO says the health-care reform law will reduce the deficit, I thought Krugman might have gone too far with his “deliberately misleading” line. But Ferguson replied to Krugman, admitting that he did just that, counting the costs of coverage but not the savings. As MSNBC’s Steven Benen put it, “It’s like saying the Patriots won the Super Bowl because they scored 14 points. But didn’t the Giants score 17 points? No, no, that doesn’t matter.”

Politico’s Dylan Byers catches Ferguson in a serious piece of selectively editing in which he snips a a CBO quote to mislead readers in response:

But Ferguson cut the CBO excerpt off mid-sentence and changed the meaning entirely…

So contrary to what Ferguson leads readers to believe, the CBO report does not state that the reduction is “unclear.”

The Atlantic’s James Fallow pulls this egregiously misleading quote from Ferguson:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

This is the kind of ham-handed stuff that might make even Paul Gigot reach for the red pen. You can’t blame a president for job losses that occurred a year before he took office. In a piece that’s the most complete Ferguson fisking I’ve seen, The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien reports that private-sector jobs in Obama’s term have increased by 427,000. Even then, that number isn’t fair—at all—to blame Obama for job losses in the first few months of his term. Recall that the economy was in a catastrophic tailspin in the last several months of the Bush administration. O’Brien:

Of course, it’s not really fair to blame Obama — or Bush — for jobs lost in their first few months before their policies took effect. If we more sensibly look at private sector payrolls after their first six months in office, then Obama has created 3.1 million jobs and Bush created 967,000 jobs.

This, as O’Brien and others point out, is false, as well:

Welcome to Obama’s America: nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return—almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming the 50-50 nation—half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits.

It’s just not true that half of the population pays no taxes (and to be pedantic, are tax returns “taxable”?). About half pay no income tax. But almost every worker pays federal payroll taxes, excise taxes, state taxes, and sales taxes—and lots of them:

Andrew Sullivan points out that Ferguson uses Obama administration GDP and unemployment projections from the first month of his presidency, based on early recession data that dramatically underestimated the severity of the fourth-quarter 2008 collapse of the economy.

Ferguson also says that, “But the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 did nothing to address the core defects of the system: the long-run explosion of Medicare costs as the baby boomers retire.”

That’s also not true, as Dean Baker wrote the other day:

This bill proposes a number of mechanisms for containing costs within the Medicare program. As a result the projected shortfall has fallen by almost two-thirds, from 3.88 percent of taxable payroll in the 2009 Medicare Trustees Report to 1.35 percent of taxable payroll in the 2012 Medicare Trustees Report.

Then there’s the foreign-policy part, where Ferguson is baffled by Obama’s popular support there, giving him no credit for the Osama bin Laden assassination or for exiting the morasses in Iraq and Afghanistan

All this from a guy who, as Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal points out, has been seriously wrong on fundamental issues in the financial crisis.

It’s one thing for Ferguson to write this baloney. It’s another for editors at Newsweek to run it.

You get to have your own opinions, but you don’t get to have your own facts, and editors are responsible for making sure columnists express their viewpoint within those boundaries. To run something like this on the cover of a national news magazine borders on journalistic malpractice.

—As a bonus off the financial/fiscal track, read Noah Smith’s take on Ferguson’s neoimperialism, noting that he isn’t an American citizen:

But - and this is why he makes me so angry - Niall Ferguson badly misunderstands my country. We are a Republic, not an Empire, and we always will be. We rejected the mantle of Anglo-Saxon world domination in the Philippines, again in Vietnam, and again in Iraq. And we will always reject it. We do not want to go forth and educate and enlighten the brown people at the point of our Tomahawk missiles, Mr. Ferguson. We want to invite them here, to live with us, to work for us and hire us, to marry our children, to become part of this country. Even, yes, to lead this country, as Barack Obama, for all his faults, has done. We do not want to conquer the world. We want to become the world.

The British Empire is over, Niall. It had its day. We can debate eternally how much good it did, but now it is done, and it is not coming back. Stop trying to screw up my Republic in your doomed effort to bring it back.

It’s worth stopping for a moment to remember, as Ferguson does not, the magnitude of the financial, fiscal, economical, diplomatic, and military messes George W. Bush left for Obama to attempt to clean up.

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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: , , , ,