Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: Russert recited Irrelevant Facts on SS. None of his panelists challenged him
Daily Howler logo
CON AIRS PART DEUX! Russert recited Irrelevant Facts on SS. None of his panelists challenged him: // link // print // previous // next //

NO HOWLER ON TUESDAY: We’ll be out of town entertaining the troops—OK, a group of real estate moguls. On Wednesday, we’ll continue to examine the ways the mainstream “press corps” has covered SS.

CON AIRS PART DEUX: Yesterday’s Meet the Press panel had its shorts in a wad about the bucks paid to Armstrong Williams. Everyone knew it was wrong, oh so wrong. Katty Kay was looking out for the folks:

KAY (1/9/05): A lot of people are seeing this, and understandably, after Mr. Williams' story, people are going to look at what they see on television and ask themselves, "How do I know that this reporter isn't being paid either by a government organization or by a business organization?" And that confusion is understandable, particularly since there has been an erosion of the lines of what is clear, objective news reporting which is being paid for by a government interest or a business interest, or am I getting entertainment, somebody's opinion?
It wasn’t A-OK with Katty! The troubled BBC newshound continued: “Audiences need to know: Am I getting news, which is objective fact, which is being reported, or am I getting advertising or propaganda?”

At THE HOWLER, we found Kay’s concern quite amusing. The prior Sunday, after all, Kay had helped display an obvious fact: Big scribes routinely promote conservative spin-points whether they’re paid to or not. Indeed, to see Kay and the rest of a panel recite UFO cant about Social Security, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/05. Then reread her outrage about “getting propaganda” and treat yourselves to a long, mordant laugh.

It’s true! No one has to pay Big Scribes to recite stupid spin about Social Security. In the mainstream press corps, conservative spin has long driven the SS debate, and yesterday’s Meet the Press proved no exception. Indeed, Tim Russert raised the SS question after his panel slammed Williams around. And guess what! Russert recited the spin-driven speech he always recites when he tackles SS. He listed gloomy, irrelevant facts taken straight from the pseudo-con spin shop:

RUSSERT (1/9/05):Albert Hunt and Katty, the situation is, when Social Security began, there were 16 workers for every retiree. There are soon to be two workers for every retiree. We have 40 million people on Social Security now. When the baby boomers retire, there'll be 80 million. Roosevelt said eligibility 65, which was genius, because if you made it to 65, you were on Social Security for a month or two and that was it. Life expectancy's now 78, 79, 80 years old, so you have twice as many people on the program for fifteen years. The president says that's a crisis. Democrats say it's not a crisis, we'll find a way to grow our way out of this and make some changes that would tweak the system. Who's right?
As usual, Russert recited gloomy facts which made SS sound unsustainable. The hardest-right spinner could hardly do better. Indeed, Russert has only made one concession on this topic over the years. He used to say there were forty-two workers for every retiree back when Social Security began (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/04). Now he offers a different irrelevant fact. It was sixteen to one, he now tells us.

Yes, Russert’s gloomy, irrelevant facts come straight from a pseudo-con spin-shop. When he recites them, you’re hearing “somebody’s opinion” in disguised form, not “clear, objective news reporting.” But this time, Kay didn’t make a peep about the need for such reporting. Indeed, no one on Russert’s four-member panel ever challenged the framework he set. No one said that SS wasn’t in crisis, or offered any of the facts that might help viewers consider that viewpoint. Indeed, here’s what Hunt, a mainstream press “liberal,” said in response to Russert:

HUNT (continuing directly): Well, it's certainly not a short-term crisis, but certainly over the long run I think Andrea [Mitchell] is right, you can't sustain the system. Something has to be done. Look, I've been in Washington for 35 years. This is going to be the mother of all battles.
What does a press corps “liberal” say when asked if SS faces a “crisis?” He says “you can’t sustain the system!” Hunt is entitled to that hazy view, of course, but it’s hard to see it as anything but the current conservative viewpoint. Meanwhile, what had Mitchell already said in the presentation Hunt affirmed? In her speech, Mitchell recited some prime White House views. Could Armstrong Williams give a better account of the basic situation?
MITCHELL: If you look at the numbers, these private accounts or personal accounts...if these accounts were put in place, it would not nearly solve the problem. You're going to have to deal with the essential question, which is that our population is not growing fast enough, combined with immigration, to create enough workers to support a pay-as-you-go retirement system. And if that's the case, you either have to revert to inflation increases rather than wage increases as your standard for what your pension is going to be based on, or make other kinds of changes that will reduce the benefits.

But politically, as we all know, that is anathema. And I think that George Bush, from this memo and from other things that I've heard, is really willing to take this on, but he's got a split in the House and the Senate.

When Mitchell explained what could be done, she never mentioned an obvious possibility—the possibility of tax increases! Could you make slight changes in the payroll tax rate? Would that “support a pay-as-you-go system?” Politely following the White House line, Mitchell never mentioned this option. And how about this: Could you raise the “cap” on the payroll tax? Mitchell forgot to consider that too. Politely reflecting the White House line, she only mentioned benefit cuts as the way to deal with revenue shortfalls. And of course, neither Mitchell nor anyone else ever mentioned a key, basic fact—that the minor revenue shortfalls in question don’t occur for the next fifty years! This basic fact was never mentioned by any of Russert’s four guests.

Yes, conservative spin-points frame this debate wherever mainstream press spin is sold. Kay wrung her hands about Armstrong Williams, insisting that voters deserved all the facts. But she and her panel then fell in line with pseudo-con versions of the facts on SS. Neither Kay, nor anyone else, offered the full range of facts on this topic. Important note to those in the White House: You don’t have to pay these people. When it comes to Social Security, they recite your key spins on their own.

THE SPEECH NOT GIVEN: Four Big Pundits stared into air as Russert recited irrelevant facts. Eventually, the pundits all stated their views. But the following speech wasn’t given:

THE UNBOOKED PUNDIT: But Tim, that 16-to-1 ratio is wholly irrelevant. Those were the numbers in 1935! But today, we have roughly three workers for every retiree, and the system is producing an annual surplus! We don’t need those sixteen workers to finance Social Security! The question is: What will happen over the next five decades as we get closer to a 2-to-1 ratio? And no, the system isn’t in “crisis.” Come on! According to the CBO, full benefits can be paid until 2052, and minor changes in taxes and benefit levels could make the system fully solvent for decades after that. We don’t need sixteen workers for every retiree. Does somebody pay you to mention them?
OK, our Unbooked Pundit should skip that last question. But this speech is never given when Washington’s pundits gather to chat. Pundits like Kay know which points to recite—after they get through scolding Williams for depriving folks of all the facts.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Within the mainstream Washington press corps, conservative spin-points rule this debate. And no, it isn’t just Meet the Press. To see a Chris Matthews panel rattle such spin, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/7/05. On Matthews, you heard about UFOs. On Meet the Press, you got sixteen workers.

IT TAKES THREE TO KNOW ONE: If you watch the propaganda mill euphemistically known as the Fox News Channel, you may not have the slightest idea why Armstrong Williams is in hot water. On Friday night’s O’Reilly Factor, then on Sunday’s Fox & Friends, the channel’s stars let Williams pretend that he had simply taken money to run legitimate TV/radio ads about the No Child Left Behind program. By Friday morning, it was clear that Williams had been paid to do far more than that. But his Fox hosts stared into air, letting Williams pretend he was being slammed for a “perfectly legitimate” ad buy.

The rehab started on Friday night, when Bill O’Reilly interviewed “the man in the accusation zone, conservative Armstrong Williams.” In his introduction, O’Reilly did manage to say that Williams “was reportedly paid $240,000 of Department of Education money to say good things on television and in print about the No Child Left Behind Act.” But when Williams was asked for his view of the flap, he stressed the TV and radio ads, a normal part of broadcasting:

WILLIAMS (1/7/05): Thank you, Bill. Well, Bill, about a year ago, we were approached by Ketchum Communications. They had been hired by the Department of Education to promote No Child Left Behind and to educate the audience about many of the issues surrounding it. They approached us about becoming a sub-contractor because they thought we were in a unique position, not just the fact that I'm a media pundit. I own my own syndication, the rights to our productions. And we syndicate my daily one-hour television show, which is on Liberty, Sky Angel, Christian Television Network and a host of other stations around the country.

And they wanted to buy advertising spots. They wanted to advertise No Child Left Behind on our shows. And we worked out a situation where they got a one-minute commercial which ran twice in the show. And it was a commercial with Secretary Paige explaining the different aspects of No Child Left Behind.

O'REILLY: Right.

WILLIAMS: At the time, because I wear these dual hats, I had no idea what controversy that could unfold as a result of my being in the media on the one hand and my accepting dollars to advocate something that I already believed in, had already advocated. But it gave the appearance that I was paid to advocate No Child Left Behind.

That was Williams’ total statement. Of course, since political entities “buy advertising spots” all the time, it was hard to see the problem with the conduct described. And as the interview continued, O’Reilly seemed to help Williams pretend that he had only been paid to run ads. Here’s one early exchange, for example:
WILLIAMS (1/7/05): Well, let me explain something to you, though. On our show, where they pay for the advertising, we did periodically disclose to the audience that we were being paid.

O'REILLY: No, but you have to say, though, if you're going to do any kind of work for the DOE, you have to say they paid for this every time. It's called full disclosure.

WILLIAMS: Oh, OK, I see your point.

O'REILLY: Every time. If you interview Rod Paige, you have to say, in a lead to Rod Paige, “he buys ad time on this show.” I'm going to interview a guy later on in The Factor who's on the same radio station that I'm on. OK, and I got to say that KLI operator in Dallas carries The Radio Factor. It's transparency, because it looks bad, you know what I'm talking about? You're not going to go jail for this, but it looks bad.

The conversation kept making it seem that Williams had only accepted money to run those TV and radio ads. Of course, Williams had also been paid to have Paige on his show as a guest. But O’Reilly allowed that fact to be hidden. Mr. O scolded Williams for his bad judgment. But to an average viewer, it must have been hard to know just what the fuss was about.

But by Sunday, when Williams did Fox & Friends, the deception was total and repetitive. In the course of a nine-minute interview, Williams kept framing the issue in terms of selling ad time, mentioning nothing else for which he’d been paid. And his three Fox hosts went along with the sham. In her introduction, for example, Fox toady Juliet Huddy pandered to Williams, calling him “a trooper for joining us.” But here’s the trooper’s opening statement, given in its entirety:

WILLIAMS (1/9/05): First, let me just correct something. We were hired as a sub-contractor by Ketchum Communications, who were hired by the Department of Education. They used my show, The Right Side with Armstrong Williams, to buy advertisements to promote No Child Left Behind. It was a legitimate ad buy.
That was Williams’ total statement. But at no time in the nine-minute session did anyone note that Williams was paid for more than a simple ad buy. And Williams kept pimping the bogus idea that the flap concerned nothing but legitimate ads. For example, here was the heart of his second statement:
WILLIAMS (1/9/05): This is the only time, and the only issue—No Child Left Behind—that I’ve ever been associated with where we were ever paid advertising dollars.
Since there’s nothing wrong with being “paid advertising dollars,” it was hard to see what the fuss was about. But Williams just kept pushing this frame—and his Fox hosts kept staring into air:
WILLIAMS (1/9/05): My issue is, as a media pundit, should I be accepting advertising dollars from the government?
Asked if he would return the money, Williams gave this absurd reply:
WILLIAMS (1/9/05): No. Because they paid for the advertising. The contract was only for six months. After the six months, the contract was over, Kethchum came back to us after seeing what exactly was delivered. As a result of the advertising on our program there were six million hits to the No Child Left Behind web site. That is why they renewed the contract.
Over and over (and over and over), Williams kept pretending that he was only paid to run legitimate ads. And none of his three Fox hosts ever tried to correct or challenge him. Indeed, by the end of the session, the hosts had reached new ground in their open pandering, agreeing with Williams when he said he was being held to “a higher standard than anyone else.”

Was Williams paid to pimp for Bush? Yes. But then, these hosts are paid to pimp for Williams! They know what Roger Ailes pays them to do, and they delivered on Sunday like cash machines. “God bless you,” one host said to Williams as The Three Storeboughts signed off.

THE STOREBOUGHT THREE: Armstrong Williams was paid to spin you, but so are these three Fox hosts: Mike Jerrick, Juliet Huddy and Julian Phillips. Roger Ailes pays them to pimp propaganda, and given their total lack of talent, they know they could never make comparable dough engaged in legitimate conduct. So they fool the rubes with sessions like this, knowing that the mainstream “press” will never say Boo to their grinding misconduct. After all, the legitimate “press” is busy reciting those tired tales about UFOs and sixteen-to-one worker ratios.

NOTE ON TRANSCRIPTS: We’d love to link to these groaning transcripts, but Fox doesn’t make such links available. And anyone with an ounce of sense knows why that is. If you ran sessions like this on your channel, would you make the transcripts available?