The Peterson Dilemma

A funded fellow wrestles with a funder's influence

A story in The Fiscal Times recently caught my eye. But even before I could decide whether to write about it, I bumped into couple of stubborn facts. Neither counts as news. But I’d like to point them out—and then get on with the hard work of blogging.

First, the easy one: I’m a Washington nerd. Shocking, I know.

The story that impressed me was about a meeting of President Obama’s fiscal commission, and what I liked was the way it captured, in lively, back-and-forth detail, the tension between two big D.C. figures—Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chairman of the panel, and Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform.

Trust me. In a city of talking points, strategies, and spin, their relationship is one of high drama, blunt language, and raw emotions. (I know. I need to get out more.) The Simpson-Norquist exchange didn’t get much notice from the press, but The Fiscal Times covered it well.

Which gets me to the second truth: this Peterson thing is tricky.

When I say “this Peterson thing,” I’m not talking about my CJR gig. Well, not just my CJR gig. But that’s part of it.

My title is CJR’s Peterson Fellow, and the job is to critique media coverage of economic and fiscal policy for As CJR put it when I was hired in late January, the goal is “to encourage the business and Washington media to take the long view.”

Among other things, we’ll encourage the press to explore the national debate over the federal budget, the national debt, entitlement programs, and taxes; the impact of Washington economic policy on Wall Street and financial markets; the still-unknown public exposure to various financial stabilization measures and its impact on future economic policy choices; the fallout and long-term consequences of financial-sector reforms; the social consequences of the crisis, including wealth transfers resulting from foreclosures and other forms of economic dislocation; and the impact of the crisis on social mobility, income distribution, poverty, and personal savings and home-ownership rates.

That’s a great big patch, and a great time to be writing about it.

As Mike Hoyt, CJR’s editor, explained then, I’m called the Peterson Fellow because the position is funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

While all journalism business models face potential conflicts of interest, the philanthropy-funded approach poses particular challenges. (See “Bite the Hand That Feeds,” in the May/June issue of CJR, for a good analysis of this situation.)

But after working at it for a while, I can confidently report that the dilemma I’ve been wrestling with is a bit more complicated than most.

Supporting my CJR work is just a tiny slice of what the foundation, and the man behind it, are doing to increase “public awareness of the nature and urgency of key fiscal challenges threatening America’s future, and to accelerating action on them.”

Peterson, Commerce secretary in the Nixon administration, was a co-founder of the Blackstone Group. When Blackstone went public in 2007, Peterson got rich, and the longtime deficit hawk promised to spend $1 billion to draw attention to the national debt. Yes, $1 billion.

His foundation is spending those big bucks on “educational campaigns” and “citizen engagement efforts,” as well as funding think tanks and advocacy groups in Washington and around the country, all to make sure the issue registers on the public’s radar.

Tax records show that Peterson’s foundation had handed out had disbursed $300 million to his foundation (*see note below) by March 31 of last year, the most recent data available, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. In addition to what his foundation is spending, Peterson himself is backing The Fiscal Times.

So, back to me. At one level, I could be CJR’s Peterson fellow, cheering or chiding The Fiscal Times, a Peterson-funded venture.

Awkward? Yeah, maybe a little. But totally manageable.

As my CJR colleague Trudy Lieberman wrote at the time, The Fiscal Times and The Washington Post handled the Peterson terrain poorly in late 2009, when the Post ran a rose-colored Fiscal Times story about growing support for a bipartisan commission to tackle the national debt—but made no mention of Peterson or his work on the issue.

This potential for institutional conflict should be easy to deal with. Disclose it and move on. That’s what CJR’s Ryan Chittum does every time he mentions Goldman Sachs, “an Audit funder” (though we’ll soon switch to “a former Audit funder,” since it has been quite a while).

The Fiscal Times has gotten better at this (and so has the Post). Here’s how the site recently handled the intertwining Peterson interests:

(The Peterson Foundation provides funding to several budget and deficit awareness groups, including America Speaks and the Concord Coalition. Separately, Peterson, a New York businessman and philanthropist, funds The Fiscal Times, an independent news service.)

But that sort of conflict is only part of what’s going on in my tangled bit of the universe, and only part of what makes this tricky and hard to dispatch with mere disclosure.

Peterson’s billion-dollar push has, quite reasonably, prompted charges that he is stacking the deck, buying the debate, and making the deficit the big issue it’s become—all to serve his hawkish ways.

Here’s the WSJ’s Thomas Frank, warning recently that “deficit reduction is often a proxy for something else,” usually “entitlement reform,” the wonky way to talk about changing—cutting! —Social Security and Medicare:

Consider, in this connection, the endless war on “entitlements” waged by the legendary deficit hawk Pete Peterson, a former commerce secretary, former investment banker, and current billionaire. Mr. Peterson has attacked these entitlements for decades now, often describing them as a betrayal of our capitalist moral fiber.

Dean Baker of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research recently pointed to a poll that found a decline in the percentage of people who expect to receive their Social Security benefits, and cautioned about blaming the shift on the rough economy:

While the recession could explain the loss of confidence in Social Security, it is also possible that the huge public relations campaign by Peter Peterson and others has played a role. Peterson, a Wall Street investment banker, has pledged $1 billion to a foundation that has cutting Social Security and Medicare as its major goals. He has spoken widely around the country telling people that Social Security is going broke and that it has no trust fund. He has enlisted prominent political figures, including former President Bill Clinton in this effort.

L. Randall Wray, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, noted at New Deal 2.0 that, “In recent months, a form of mass hysteria has swept the country as fear of ‘unsustainable’ budget deficits replaced the earlier concern about the financial crisis, job loss, and collapsing home prices.” While acknowledging that even some “deficit doves” are worried about structural deficits in the future, Wray wrote:

To be sure, at least some of the hysteria has been manufactured by Pete Peterson’s well-funded public relations campaign, fronted by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — a group that supposedly draws members from across the political spectrum, yet are all committed to the belief that the current fiscal stance puts the nation on a path to ruinous indebtedness.

And on and on.

It’s impossible to say what would have happened absent the Peterson money, and too soon to say whether it will influence any actual changes in government policy. But, while impossible to measure, there’s no doubt it’s having some kind of impact on the public discourse—and press coverage.

Peterson himself appears ready to declare at least partial victory. Here’s how Businessweek put it in early July:

Peterson’s $1 Billion Bet Shows Return as Deficit Concerns Rise

Wall Street financier Peter G. Peterson got a decent return on his investment last week when Senate Republicans ended the Democrats’ third attempt to push though an extension of unemployment benefits and President Barack Obama failed to persuade his European counterparts at the Group of 20 meeting in Toronto to maintain economic stimulus programs.

“I haven’t seen anything like this kind of concern in the 30 years I’ve been talking and writing about this,” says the 84-year-old fiscal hawk.

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?

There’s been a lot written lately about this (Try here, and here, and here.). But the short answer: Maybe not as easy as the Peterson gang thinks.

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.

The results of their fiscal town hall were presented to the deficit commission, and, even before the meetings, Peterson skeptics complained that their participants weren’t a good sample of American opinion and their briefing materials put too much emphasis on reducing budget deficits.

But when it was all done, there was less room for complaint. Here’s how Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, and Benjamin Page, who teaches decision making at Northwestern, put it:

Remarkably, however, AmericaSpeaks got lucky (or perhaps, from Peterson’s point of view, unlucky.) Despite all the biases, on several issues town hall participants came up with opinions not very different from those that have been expressed by majorities of Americans in dozens of well-designed national surveys. Participants opposed cuts in Social Security benefits, insisting that benefits must be preserved when balancing the budget. They wanted to strengthen the economy, favoring the current stimulus bill (stalled in the Senate) by a margin of 51% to 38%. In order to reduce budget deficits, most favored cutting defense spending and enacting progressive tax measures: raising the payroll tax “cap” so that incomes over $106,800 are subject to the tax (85% in favor); raising high-end corporate and personal income taxes; and imposing new taxes on carbon and on securities transactions. Only on the Social Security retirement age did the results conspicuously stray from actual public opinion.

That’s pretty interesting. But it doesn’t really solve my dilemma.

What I can say is that I hope you’ll keep reading as I try to take on these thorny questions. As campaign season heats up and the fiscal commission steps up its work, I’m going to keep writing about coverage of deficits and stimulus and taxes.

I’ll also try to tackle the Peterson phenomenon more directly. Does his foundation and all his money make certain issues bigger than they deserve to be? Does he “buy the debate” in some respects, as some think? Or do these issues get the weight they should, with or without a Pete Peterson? And do some people make him a bête noire to avoid the spending and deficit issues they’d rather not face?

And how should the press address such questions? I’ll provide the best press criticism I can on these broad and important areas of coverage, areas that just about everybody, on all sides of economic debates, agrees are real.

(*My earlier version had misread the BusinessWeek piece, which had actually said [with my addition]: “Peterson had disbursed $300 million of the $1 billion pledge [meaning, to the foundation, not to outside groups] by Mar. 31 of last year, according to tax records.”)

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at