Media had Paul Ryan dead to rights. The House Republican’s weird little anecdote about a boy who didn’t want school lunch because a kid with a paper bag lunch “has someone who cares for him”—intended to illustrate his weird big point that leftists offer people “a full stomach, but an empty soul”—was in tatters.
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler (3/6/14) discovered that the Wisconsin state legislator from whom Ryan heard the story now says she “misspoke.” She hadn’t talked to the “little boy”; she’d seen, on TV, a man in his late ’30s recalling a childhood incident that had nothing to do with school lunches—which, as it happens, he strongly advocates.
Just days before, the Fiscal Times (3/4/14) reported that a number of the scholars Ryan cited in his critical survey of federal anti-poverty programs believe that he misrepresented or misunderstood their work. In one case, he arbitrarily lopped off part of a study’s time frame so as to reduce an evident drop in poverty rates.
Nevertheless, media continue to foreground Ryan and his ideas (Extra!, 6/11), over and against those from more reliable quarters. His critique of poverty programs got a virtually critic-free response in the Washington Post (3/2/14), whose reporter was apparently awed by the “bevy of academic literature and federal studies” mustered by what one source called Republicans’ “big-ideas guy.” The New York Times (3/4/14) called it a “blistering analysis,” and the Chicago Tribune (3/4/14) said it “expands the income inequality discussion that has largely been dominated by Democrats.”
When the Congressional Progressive Caucus released its budget a week later, none of these major dailies deigned to mention it. It was written up by the L.A. Times’ Michael Hiltzik (3/12/14), who noted that it would
ask the wealthiest members of society—those who have benefited the most from the recovery, such as it is—to shoulder a larger share of the costs of growing the economy, rather than squeezing the disabled, the elderly, parents of preschoolers, and laid-off schoolteachers and other public employees.
Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer—who recently explained (2/16/14) that, unlike someone who “went to Harvard,” he couldn’t “understand phrases like ‘income inequality’ and things like that,” and instead “would kind of like to hear people talk about jobs…and things like that”—had no time for a budget plan that had job creation as its centerpiece. The show did, however, have Ryan on that week (3/9/14) to chat about missile defense, punishing Vladimir Putin for “invad[ing] Russia” and whether Ryan wants to run for president.
The Progressive Caucus plan talked about putting people to work on infrastructure repair, but the New York Times isn’t even sure that’s a real thing: “Are Infrastructure Needs Truly Urgent?” was the topic of the paper’s March 13 “Room for Debate” feature.
So perhaps media aren’t driven to challenge Ryan’s bona fides as a “big-ideas guy” because they share those big ideas.
In particular, “entitlement reform”—cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits —is key to Ryan’s plans, but no less crucial to elite media, who place it on the short list of what it takes to be a “serious” politician (Extra!, 1/11).
Indeed, such is the power of the benefit-cutting gospel that reporters can’t seem to grasp that most people aren’t believers. The New York Times (3/4/14) describes Democrats opposing benefit cuts as “fearful that giving ground on Social Security would anger the liberal base.” That only makes sense if that “base” is the roughly 58 percent of the US public that opposes such cuts (Kaiser Health News, 1/24/13).
Likewise, when the Progressive Caucus budget proposes a public health insurance option, and an end to war in Afghanistan, it’s touching on things the public overwhelmingly wants, but corporate media dismiss as unserious.
In this atmosphere, the idea that the government should prioritize jobs, education and healthcare over deficit reduction can’t get any oxygen, despite economist Dean Baker’s point (AlJazeera.com, 3/10/14) that “millions of people are seeing their lives needlessly ruined” because the priority is the other way around.
So don’t be fooled by occasional “gotcha” pieces. Corporate media can’t afford to scrutinize Ryan too closely—lest they be forced to consider that the messenger’s flaws reflect those of the message.