The Wall Street Journal and New York Times misplay the report out of the deficit commission panel today.

The Journal leads its front page with the big headline:

Deficit Panel Pushes Cuts

The Times is worse, going with a three-line screamer over two columns:

PANEL SEEKS CUTS IN SOCIAL SECURITY AND HIGHER TAXES

The Washington Post says:

Deficit panelists offer bold moves on taxes, outlays

Only the Post is correct. The plan is only a draft issued by the two chairmen of the eighteen-member panel. As Ezra Klein points out, nobody else has signed off on it, and “There is no report from the fiscal commission.” Period. The draft needs fourteen votes to even become an official report. Klein:

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform will not get agreement from 14 of its members. It might not even get a majority…

The reality is, we don’t have a congressional fiscal commission, we don’t have a report from the White House’s fiscal commission, and we don’t have a consensus on fiscal issues between the two parties. The co-chairmen have some interesting policy ideas for how to balance the budget, but as of yet, they’ve not made any discernible progress on the political deadlock preventing us from balancing the budget. And it’s the deadlock, not the policy questions, that they were asked to solve.

There isn’t even the political will for an agreement on by eighteen people, many of whom aren’t in elected office, much less the House, the Senate, and the president.

So, this story is way overplayed. And it’s unhelpful that papers like the Journal and the Times create the impression that it embodies some sort of consensus plan by the panel. It’s more like an agreement by two old guys with zero power.

Both papers say in their actual stories that it’s the chairmen of the panel, not the panel itself, that agreed on the plan (err, the Journal did in its four-star edition anyway. The earlier edition—not so much). But headlines are critical. They’re the first thing people read, and they color how most will read every sentence of a story. You’ve got to get them right.


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 rc2538@columbia.edu.