Again, back to me. I’ve been writing about what’s missing in coverage of unemployment, what’s smart about stimulus stories, and what’s confusing when it comes to tax cuts. And I’m critiquing press coverage of the big structural issues in which my funder is working hard to reshape the playing field, and, at a minimum, thinks he’s having some success.
My wise editor wondered if this feels like that scene in Being John Malkovich, in which Malkovich goes to a restaurant; all the customers and waiters are John Malkovich, the menu is full of Malcovich salad, fried Malcovich, etc. It’s not quite that enveloping. I’ve had no contact with the Peterson gang. I didn’t even get invited to the fancy Fiscal Times launch party (though I heard the desserts were very good).
But this isn’t something that can be handled with a neat disclosures saying that someone mentioned in a post is also CJR funder. This is about big-picture changes in the national conversation.
That’s what I’ve been wrestling with in my CJR writing—how to reckon with the Peterson role in it all, even if I can’t draw a straight line from the Peterson checkbook to those changes in the conversation.
I’ve complained before about the press’s bad habit of equating what politicians say is their growing concern over the deficit with broad public worry about the issue. Should I have pointed out in that post that the same Peterson Foundation that funds my CJR position has given money to groups that hope to boost public concern about the issue? Maybe.
What makes my challenge especially nettlesome, I think, is that so much of the deficit conversation just wouldn’t be happening without the Peterson infusion.
The Fiscal Times tries to flood the zone with its coverage, but I haven’t seen much evidence that the site has become a big player in our crowded media world. But despite their early misstep, The Fiscal Times and The Washington Post still have an association. Back in June, the Post ran a story from TFT about the improbable team of Andy Stern, the former labor leader, and David Cote, CEO of Honeywell International. Both sit on the president’s deficit commission and, if the panel is to reach the bipartisan consensus it needs to have any impact, it may well come down to their budding relationship.
The Post cleaned up its disclosure act, and I didn’t have any major complaints about the story. Yeah, it had a bit of a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, with passages like this:
Both men wore blue, pin-striped suits and bantered about their common experience running big organizations. Stern, with his coifed white hair and his pink silk tie, could have passed for a business mogul and often sounded like one as he talked of the need for “targets” and “reaching the numbers.” Cote was if anything the more rumpled of the two and spoke in plain terms about the sheer magnitude of a trillion-dollar deficit.
But, despite that, more coverage of the commission and its important work is a good thing. If these two change something from improbable to possible, it’s got to be smart to write about them.
And yet, it’s still problematic. The story got a lot of space in the Sunday paper, and, plain and simple, it wouldn’t have been there if The Fiscal Times hadn’t provided it.
Which gets to the next question in this muddle. Just how easy is it to shape public debate in a serious policy area like this?
The latest evidence comes from what was billed as “the largest ever national discussion on the country’s fiscal future,” drawing 3,500 people in nineteen cities. The meetings were organized by AmericaSpeaks, a nonpartisan group that, you guessed it, gets money from the Peterson Foundation. AmericaSpeaks specializes in helping ordinary folk engage in decision-making on important, and complicated, policy topics and, based on what I saw at a 2002 weekend meeting in New York about plans for redeveloping the World Trade Center, they know what they’re doing.