Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as his Republican running mate has unleashed yet another torrent of fawning coverage touting Ryan's intelligence and bravery for advocating a fiscal plan of massive government spending cuts and massive tax breaks for the wealthy. (See Extra!, 6/11.)
On CBS's 60 Minutes (8/12/12), Morley Safer introduced an exclusive interview with Romney and Ryan by calling the latter "the Republican master of all aspects of federal spending." Anchor Bob Schieffer carried that theme over into a question to Romney, explaining that Ryan "is known up on the Hill as a teacher. He's a real expert on the budget. He helps other people understand it."
The Washington Post's Dan Balz (8/14/12) wrote that "Ryan, like Romney, is a numbers person who likes to break down problems and solve them after digesting reams of data."
Ryan's budget plans are presented as an extension of his personality. According to the Washington Post (8/13/12), "Ryan is articulating clear convictions about fiscal austerity and offering an intellectual vision." Under the headline "An Everyman With Extraordinary Charm," the Post's David A. Fahrenthold and Paul Kane (8/12/12) reported that
Ryan's big ideas bear the stamp of his own story: They stress independence and self-reliance, the qualities that took him from the mailroom to a spot on his party's presidential ticket.
To hear corporate media tell it, Ryan has a serious plan that makes tough choices to rein in the budget deficit and to reduce the debt. The Associated Press called Ryan "an ardent conservative and devoted budget cutter." According to the New York Times (8/12/12), Ryan's plan "would help the federal government predict and control its costs but could shift some costs to beneficiaries and to states."
The Washington Post's David Nakamura (8/13/12) explained that "Ryan has proposed major cuts to spending and entitlement programs in an effort to curb the spiraling national debt." On the CBS Evening News (8/11/12), Chip Reid told viewers that Ryan "has made the federal budget his focus and curbing the national debt his mantra." On the same broadcast, reporter Jan Crawford said Ryan
has hammered a message of fiscal responsibility. Ryan has proposed revamping Medicare before it becomes insolvent, cutting trillions of dollars in discretionary spending, and reforming the tax code.
While Ryan has been getting--and will likely continue to get--remarkably flattering press attention for being a wonky number-cruncher, in reality his plans don't really do what corporate media claim they do. While "curbing" the debt might be his "mantra," his radical plan to cut non-military spending would take decades--even using his own rosy projections (Paul Krugman, 4/6/11; Washington Post, 4/6/11)--to bring the budget into balance (CBPP, 3/28/12). Government spending outside of healthcare or the military would face drastic cuts--so deep, in fact, as economist Dean Baker (Truthout, 8/13/12) points out, it is difficult to fathom how the government could function.
And while the press often present Ryan's budget plan as the purest expression of his intellect and convictions, it's not often noted that Ryan the politician has voted for a number of budget-busters--from the Bush tax cuts to prescription drug benefits to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Ryan pick brings media focus back to his Medicare plan. Ryan would shift healthcare costs to seniors, most noticeably by moving from a single-payer model to a voucher plan that would give retirees money to purchase private health insurance. The money would not cover the cost of a plan, though--seniors would come up with the difference themselves (CEPR, 4/6/11).
But many media accounts obscure this fact, using bland language that fails to convey the radical nature of Ryan's solution. PBS NewsHour's Kwame Holman (8/13/12) told viewers that Ryan's budget would "impose changes for future Medicare recipients to hold down costs"--adding that "Democrats say his proposals would gut Medicare."Later in the show, host Gwen Ifill misleadingly explained that "it would change Medicare to allow future retirees the option of government subsidies for private insurance." The New York Times (8/12/12) called Ryan "an advocate of reshaping the Medicare program of health insurance for retirees."
In many accounts, pointing out the implications of the Ryan plan is partisan. The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold (8/14/12) offered a clear example:
Since his selection, he has been attacked by Democrats as a ruthless ideologue, whose budget proposals would "end Medicare."
They’re not totally right about him, either.
Ryan's latest budget would allow current seniors to keep their Medicare coverage, unchanged. But it would alter the arrangement for those turning 65 after 2023, offering seniors a set amount to buy health plans from private insurers.
The coverage of the Ryan announcement was, in reality, a chance for media to return to some familiar themes (Extra!, 3/11). During an April 22 discussion of potential candidates, NBC Meet the Press host David Gregory argued that "if you want to send a message you're serious about the budget, you could do that with Paul Ryan."
That kind of thinking was prevalent in a corporate media system that seemed to lavish equal praise on Ryan's budget and his personal charms. In the New York Times (1/25/11), Jennifer Steinhauer and David Herszenhorn told readers that Ryan "is the guy with the piercing blue eyes" and "love for heavy metal on his iPod"--as well as a reputation among Democrats "as a Republican who has put forward budget ideas that are thoughtful and serious."
Ryan, Time magazine noted late last year (12/14/11), has "jet black hair and a touch of Eagle Scout to him." Time's David Von Drehle also cheered him for having "offered a budget that began to convey the scale of change necessary to defuse the American debt bomb." He added that Ryan has "the courage to look the future in the eye. It is a seer's work to glimpse around the corner and sound an alarm."
Even among his corporate media critics, Ryan is often the subject of praise. Time columnist Fareed Zakaria (4/18/11) wrote that "Ryan's plan is deeply flawed, but it is courageous." Zakaria adds that "Ryan makes magical assumptions about growth--and thus tax revenues," and that other aspects are "highly unrealistic." But still he concludes by applauding it as "a serious effort to tackle entitlement programs." Seriously magical?
The most notable exception to the lionizing of Paul Ryan has been New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has written several columns about Ryan's fuzzy budget math. Upon hearing the news that Ryan would be Romney's running mate, he wrote in a blog post (8/13/12):
What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.
In short, there are two versions of Paul Ryan: He is either a wonky, spreadsheet-obsessed policy expert, or he's crafted a budget that favors the wealthy and makes little practical or even mathematical sense. Economists and budget experts tend to believe the latter; journalists overwhelmingly see the former.