Archive | March, 2009

Who’s Lying On Social Security?

Glenn Greenwald points out why the use of unnamed sources is so misleading to the public:

In order to assuage concerns among progressives that the Obama administration intends to follow in the Bush administration’s footsteps by trying to cut Social Security benefits, high-level Obama officials have been telling journalists such as The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein — on the condition of anonymity — that they have no intention of touching Social Security, producing reports which then faithfully communicate that message, such as this one from Klein, two weeks ago:

What people at the White House have told me on Social Security — and what I wrote in the post she’s referencing — is that there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future. It’s not a priority and it’s not a political winner. . . . The problem, they say, is health care, not Social Security, and that’s where the White House is focusing.

Based on those same anonymous conversations, Klein wrote other posts telling progressives who are worried about Obama’s intention to cut Social Security that they were worrying about something that doesn’t exist.

But in The New York Times today, David Brooks recounted what he described as “conversations with four senior members of the administration.” Those unnamed Obama officials all called Brooks in order to refute his column from last week which argued “that the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous.” Brooks — like Klein — granted anonymity to and then proceeded to quote all four “senior members of the Obama administration” (a) without explaining why he did so, (b) without describing efforts, if any, to persuade them to use their names and (c) without providing any information about who they are or what their motives might be (all flagrant violations of the supposed NYT policy governing the use of anonymity). These paragraphs were the result of the anonymity Brooks gave to the Obama White House (emphasis in original):

Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.

He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

What Klein’s anonymous White House sources told him (“there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future“) is directly contrary to what Brooks’ anonymous White House sources, two weeks later, told him (Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security”). But there’s no way to resolve those contradictory White House claims because Klein and Brooks allowed these officials to hide behind anonymity when making these claims. That’s what anonymity does — it allows dubious or even false government claims to be spouted with impunity and without any accountability.

What Klein’s anonymous White House sources told him (“there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future”) is directly contrary to what Brooks’ anonymous White House sources, two weeks later, told him (Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security”). But there’s no way to resolve those contradictory White House claims because Klein and Brooks allowed these officials to hide behind anonymity when making these claims. That’s what anonymity does — it allows dubious or even false government claims to be spouted with impunity and without any accountability.

That’s why anonymity is such a valuable weapon for government officials and such a risky and questionable practice for journalists. If the claims from Klein and Brooks’ sources are true about the intentions of the White House, then why can’t they just attach their names to those claims and why aren’t they made to do so by the journalists before having their statements amplified to the public?

First let me note that, as a contract employee -which is what the Times’ columnists are, Brooks is mostly likely not bound by the anonymity rule, although he should be.

Second, I don’t know that these are as contradictory as Glenn thinks. This is where I’ll put on my former-press-secretary hat. You never want to lie to a reporter if you can help it, but you will mislead them. My guess is, the person they misled is Ezra Klein. First of all, “not in the foreseeable future”? Classic weasel words. “When I talked to you, Ezra, it really wasn’t a priority. But circumstances have changed since then.”

And while we all know who he is, in the Beltway world, Ezra’s not a big name and doesn’t have a huge megaphone – except in the blogosphere, so the thinking would be that he’s not as big a potential threat as Brooks. But if you activated the liberal base at this time with a possible threat to cut Social Security, that would be a real distraction at a time when they’re focused on other things. Trust me: They don’t want to deal with this right now (i.e. “for the foreseeable future.”) So yeah, score one for truth.

If the Obama administration was really serious about never touching Social Security, odds are they would have made that strategic leak to someone more prominent. Real leaks (that is, accurate ones), on things that matter, are always used to float trial ballons and either reward the reporter for previous favorable coverage – or get him in line to soften future coverage.

From my own experience as the person pushing those stories to reporters, I’d say Brooks was the one who got the accurate story on this because 1) it’s the Times and you don’t want to piss them off if you don’t have to 2) they wanted to soften him up to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on budget issues in general and 3) they wanted him to pass it along the secret message to other conservatives – “I didn’t put this in the story, but Axlerod told me, strictly on the QT, that…”. In other words, this has all the signs of a classic strategic leak.

And if there’s any doubt here, you have to give the edge to appointments – namely, that Obama has surrounded himself with many, many advisers who have actively supported either the privatization or partial privatization of Social Security. Are those the people you’d hire if you wanted to save Social Security?

So while it is indeed difficult to read between the lines when “sources” spout conflicting stories, in this case? Not so much. Because I think they were both told a version of the truth. No, Obama’s not planning to touch Social Security – at this time. And yes, Obama plans to cut Social Security spending – in something. Only time will tell what those cuts include.

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