7 Worst Media Brown-Nosers Who Enable Paul Ryan’s Lies By Sarah Jaffe
Many pundits describe the vice-presidential nominee as an intellectual heavyweight. He’s not — but you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media reports.
The myth of “Paul Ryan, serious budget wonk” has a history that dates since the 2010 Tea Party sweep of the elections, at least into the Bush administration. It’s been untrue for at least that long.
There were magazine stories of the Young Guns of the GOP—Ryan, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy. They even chose that title to brand themselves, comparisons to the 1980s cowboy movies notwithstanding. If they were in a boy band, Ryan would’ve been the Serious One while Cantor was the Wisecracking One, and McCarthy, well, he was the One Everyone Forgets About. Other Serious Young Men gave Paul Ryan gravitas–even those ostensibly across the aisle, like Ezra Klein, who wrote in 2011, “Ryan is the kind of politician I fundamentally like. He’s smart, policy-oriented and willing to take political risks.” In 2010 Klein titled a blog post “The virtues of Ryan’s roadmap,” calling Ryan’s plan (the one that gutted Medicare) “a more honest entry into the debate.”
Klein at least has come around to become one of the stronger voices arguing that Ryan isn’t a deficit hawk but an ideologue bent on privatization. But plenty of others are still pretending that the vice-presidential nominee is willing to have a serious debate on policy. It’s no secret that Fox News is letting Romney and Ryan get away with anything, but it’s commentators in the mainstream media that do the most damage. Reporters love a ready-made narrative. Writing on a deadline, it’s easy to slot in conventional descriptors and fit politicians into stock roles. We’ve been told Ryan is a serious budget nerd, and the more it gets echoed, the more it will continue to be echoed. Here we bring you seven media enablers of the Paul Ryan myth.
1. Howard Kurtz, Daily Beast
Howard Kurtz is supposed to be a media critic, which makes it even more grating that he’s fallen into the same trap as most of the rest of the mainstream media when it comes to Ryan’s bona fides.
“True to his reputation as one of the GOP’s leading intellectuals,” Kurtz wrote of Ryan’s RNC appearance, “it was something of a wonky speech sprinkled with folksy references—such as one to his hometown of Janesville, Wisc., where ‘a lot of guys I went to high school with’ worked at a GM plant that shut down.”
That’s not the only time Kurtz alludes to Ryan’s wonkiness without actually mentioning any of Ryan’s policy points—aside from pointing out that Ryan’s misleading everyone by beating up on Obama’s Medicare cuts without mentioning his own slash-and-burn plan for healthcare for the elderly. He also mentions the Janesville line without pointing out that it too was one of Ryan’s biggest whoppers of the night, trying to blame the president for closing a plant that shut down in 2008.
He wrote that Ryan delivered a policy-based attack on Obama but the example he gives is Ryan’s attack on Obamacare, which Ryan said has no place in “a free country.” Serious policy analysis, indeed!
As an aside, the GOP can’t seem to decide whether it loves or hates the auto bailout—at once beating up on Obama for bailing out GM and Chrysler and then, as Ryan does here, complaining that Obama didn’t save a plant in his own district. Apparently auto plants are like military bases—they should be propped up by the government as “job creators” when it’s convenient for members of Congress. Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal joked on Twitter, “Romney should announce a Works Progress Administration/Civilian Conservation Corps tonight, but one where everyone in it works in Janesville.”
In other words, here’s the same man lauded as being “serious” for being willing to slice and dice social programs, apparently calling for government to bail out manufacturing. Will that be in his next budget proposal, you think?
2. Dan Balz, Washington Post
According to Balz, Romney and Ryan “share an essential geekiness.” He doesn’t mean that they’re both white men who can’t dance—no, he’s talking about, you guessed it, policy. “Ryan, like Romney, is a numbers person who likes to break down problems and solve them after digesting reams of data,” he writes.
Funny, I thought the only data Romney liked to digest was how many workers he could lay off. And Ryan’s publicly admitted that neither of them have “run the numbers” on Romney’s budget plan even while they trumpet their supposed deficit reductions.
As Peter Hart at FAIR notes, Balz actually does source some of the comments about the choice of Paul Ryan—to an anonymous Romney adviser, who spoke anonymously in order to affirm that other people had called the Ryan pick “bold” and that Romney was “confident.” Because one really needs anonymity to assert the feelings of the candidate. Another anonymous source makes the same comment later in the piece that Balz makes on his own–“Romney and Ryan are both data-driven guys, and there’s no question they will win the intellectual argument about whether we need to reform Medicare.”
Why he needs anonymous sources to say things that he seems perfectly comfortable repeating as conventional wisdom, I can’t quite figure out.
3. Michael Crowley, Time Magazine
Possibly the most gratuitous fluffing of Paul Ryan’s reputation comes from Time, where senior correspondent Crowley opens the piece with the assertion that “Paul Ryan may be America’s most famous budget wonk.”
The reasons? Because Ryan likes to quote his many “intellectual idols.” Including, you guessed it, Ayn Rand!
But as Peter Hart points out at FAIR, where this article really gets weird is when it starts getting excited about Ryan’s religion. Catholicism, you see, is where Ryan gets his ideas on “social issues”–which is, as is usual in the mainstream media, code for “gay marriage, abortion, and those pesky rights women and LGBTQ folks keep going on about.” But wait! It’s not just social issues Ryan learned about from the church. No, his budget cuts are all Christlike too. Or at least drawn from the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI.
But Ryan says Catholic doctrine informs more than his views on social issues. His mission to reduce spending is partly inspired, he said in April, by the Vatican. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are ‘living at the expense of future generations’ and ‘living in untruth,’” he said. In which case the Ryan budget could be interpreted as a play for fairness and honesty, at least in the eyes of its maker.
Right. Except that as we’ve noted, Ryan’s budget—to say nothing of Romney’s plans for the economy—doesn’t actually reduce the deficit, and Ryan’s cuts to Pell Grants would explicitly be at the expense of future generations, saddling college students with massive debt even as earnings for college grads are sinking.
And what do you think the Pope say about the lies in Ryan’s convention speech?
4. Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times
This short LA Times piece is a near-perfect example of a reporter sticking to the narrative she’s heard, using the descriptions of the candidate that his party would most like to believe are true without ever questioning whether they hold up. “The vice presidential pick has breathed new vigor into the campaign, as conservatives who had expressed lackluster support for Mitt Romney embraced the budget wonk for the No. 2 spot,” Mascaro writes. And then, “Ryan is among the party’s sharpest fiscal thinkers and the architect of the GOP’s approach to steep budget cuts and the Medicare overhaul that has been attacked by Democrats as ending the social safety net.”
Balance! Too bad there’s no “Republicans say” in front of “budget wonk” or “among the party’s sharpest fiscal thinkers.” Those are givens, whereas the cuts that Ryan’s Medicare overhaul would make to the beloved program are portrayed as things that Democrats made up rather than actual policy proposals made by the “wonk.”
As Simon Maloy at Media Matters noted: “In the span of two weeks, Paul Ryan the ‘wonk’ has said he doesn’t know when his campaign’s budget will balance because they haven’t done the math, and he can’t give tax details until after the election. So the question for the media now becomes: Why keep hyping Paul Ryan’s wonkiness when he keeps giving you reasons not to?”
5. Patrick O’Connor, Wall Street Journal
For O’Connor, Ryan’s budget wonkery stems from the fact that he once was a policy aide in Congress and that other Tea Party Republicans are attached to his wildly unpopular budget ideas. Admitting that Ryan had only a few pages on the budget in Young Guns, the book he co-wrote with Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, and that Ryan’s commitment to deficit-reduction never seems to include a willingness to go after the military yet always targets social programs, O’Connor nevertheless repeats the popular narrative that Ryan is a “wonk.” What he doesn’t do is question, in his rather extensive history of Ryan’s career, why the budget hawk voted repeatedly to blow holes in the budget with massive tax cuts.
He does raise one tantalizing question, after hundreds of words listing Paul Ryan’s appeal as a serious intellectual heavyweight on fiscal issues: if Ryan’s budget plan is so appealing, why doesn’t Mitt Romney want to use it?
6. Felicia Somnez, Washington Post
From “Aboard the Ryan Plane,” Somnez writes the world’s least original lede about Paul Ryan. “You can take the budget guru out of Washington, but you can’t take Washington out of the budget guru.”
She points out that on the campaign trail Ryan has made an effort not to reveal too much of his “inner policy wonk,” for fear of scaring voters who might be put off by his sheer wonkiness. She doesn’t suggest that maybe he doesn’t talk about policy on the campaign trail because his policy tends to scare the bejesus out of actual voters. (Don’t worry, that link has a joke about Ryan being a “numbers guy” too!)
The evidence that Ryan is “wonky,” for the Post, is that he “let slip” a mention of FICA—the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, the technical name for payroll taxes. Maybe not a household name exactly, but certainly something that most people who work for a living have come across. And then he used the term “baseline”–which Somnez cutely called “the B word.” And then Ryan himself claimed to be “wonky.”
Media Matters’ Zachary Pleat noted in response that economists from Conscience of a Liberal author Paul Krugman to Reagan-Bush I adviser Bruce Bartlett have written off Ryan’s budget as fraudulent, nothing but a PR move. Pleat pointed out, “Economists also say that Ryan has little understanding of monetary policy. In a post to his blog titled ‘Paul Ryan’s Nutty Views on Monetary Policy,’ University of Oregon economist Mark Thoma said that he doesn’t ‘understand why someone with such clownish views is lauded as a policy wonk.’”
7. Ben Smith, BuzzFeed
Smith stakes out a contrarian position worthy of Christopher Hitchens in this column, claiming that Ryan’s lies, which have, at this point, become obvious enough to be called out by such rabid left-wing propaganda outlets as Runner’s World and the New York Times (itself no stranger to the Paul-Ryan-Boy-Budget-Genius narrative), aren’t so bad, really. It’s just politics!
Smith argues that Ryan is not really lying, but just stretching the truth like all politicians and most people who run marathons, and that Democrats are just doing to Ryan what Republicans did to Al Gore. He admits the truth about Ryan’s budget plans but ignores the fact that, as Judd Legum at Think Progress points out, Ryan is less than transparent about what he’d like to do to popular programs. “In his convention speech, Ryan was not honest about how he would ‘turn Medicare into a less-expensive voucher system,’” Legum notes. “Ryan said he ‘will protect and strengthen Medicare.’ He didn’t admit that he plans to ‘cut health care spending for poor people deeply.’ Rather, Ryan said the ‘truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.’”
Instead of calling the lies what they are, Smith argues that they’re essentially “policy differences,” that this campaign is actually more honest than most he’s seen (an appeal to savviness that would impress press critic Jay Rosen).
It would be nice if the campaign were, as Smith says, “being conducted in the daylight on the highest stakes in American government,” on taxes and who should pay them, on health care and Social Security and support for those struggling in the wake of global economic upheaval, on the real ideological differences between left and right (and more narrowly, between Democrat and Republican, Obama and Romney).
But it’s not. This isn’t a debate between people who believe in smaller government and people who want to maintain what’s left of the New Deal. The myth of the small government conservative runs deep, and Ryan’s been coasting on it for a while. But it’s never been true. The people who claim to want smaller government aren’t in favor of shrinking government for its own sake—they’re simply opposed to the government doing things like collecting taxes on the rich and funding social programs for everyone else.
In other words, they’re opposed to the government doing what governments do (except in rare cases when they want to complain about GM plants closing in their neighborhoods). It’s about time the media stopped dubbing massive cuts to public services “serious” and “wonky” and started calling it what it is: a radical rethinking of the purpose of government.
© 2012, agentleman.