The Washington Post and Paul Ryan’s Wonky Math

Dean Baker’s Beat the Press is the best Early Warning Media Mythbuster. It’s simple: You read it every morning before you read the papers (he is up before you are, trust me) and you’re well prepared to deal with the economic nonsense you’ll be subjected to.

Today (4/6/11) he proposes this headline for stories about Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint:

Representative Ryan Proposes Medicare Plan Under Which Seniors Would Pay Most of Their Income for Healthcare

Baker writes: “That is what headlines would look like if the United States had an independent press.” He explains that the central idea in Ryan’s plan–voucher-like “premium support” instead of Medicare–will leave people paying a lot for healthcare. It’s a simple idea, but not one that is expressed so simply in many press accounts.

Take one Washington Post article today (4/6/11) by David A. Fahrenthold. It leads with this:

This is the essential question for Rep. Paul Ryan: Can this man really manage the hardest sales job in U.S. politics?

That might be “essential” for him, but it’s of little importance to us. We need to know what the plan actually wants to do. But papers too often find space to run these kinds of man-in-the-news profiles at the expense of telling readers, as often as they should, how policy ideas will affect them.

In the piece we learn that Ryan “is the lanky, wonky chairman of the House Budget Committee” and “an unlikely revolutionary.” The Post tells us that “Ryan studied economics in college, and in Congress he has embraced the weedy issues of the federal budget.” One source seems to think that “sticking to his wonky reputation would be a good idea.”

Back to the sales job:

So far, the sales pitch appears to be classic Ryan. He will make his case with earnestness and a hope that a quiet explanation of budget math can swing the country in a way that previous politicians could not.

He’s just trying to explain math! That’s nice, since the Post article doesn’t:

The vision also includes a change in the Medicare program, in which the federal government acts as a health insurer for seniors. In coming years–Ryan’s plan does not apply to people who are already 55–he would shift the program so that seniors would choose a private health plan. The federal government would then provide “premium support” to help them pay for coverage.

The main math question is how much “support” seniors will get. The answer is not much,and certainly not enough to cover the skyrocketing cost of healthcare. Pointing this out should be part of every story–even ones that tell us that Paul Ryan’s a “wonk.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.