Media Matters: The Message is More Important Than the Facts

Since its release last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the long-term fiscal scenarios facing America has drawn a myriad of reactions from across the political spectrum. Liberals have said it shows we need to raise taxes, conservatives have said it shows we need to cut spending, and libertarians have said it shows both parties are corrupt and therefore Americans should support their movement.

These are all respectable, if differing, positions on policy and politics, and should be prominent in the coming debates over raising the debt ceiling, sequestration, the Bush tax policies and the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. However, these positions must be based upon an honest depiction of the facts. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent liberal voices in that regard, Media Matters for America, failed significantly when discussing this report in an article entitled “CBO Report Shows Stable Budget Is Possible, But Media Hype ‘Grim’ Scenario.”

According to its website, Media Matters for America is dedicated to “comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.” In discussing the possibility of a stable budget, however, Media Matters has at least four misleading statements and analyses which — given its influence in the Obama Administration, MSNBC and elsewhere — are a disservice to the American people and to its declared mission. The statements are outlined below, as are the true facts surrounding the report:

1. The piece infers that ending the Bush tax cuts will be the major part of the reduced debt level as a percentage of GDP. Yet nowhere does the article mention that the Budget Control Act, full implementation of the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) and the Affordable Care Act’s $500 billion in taxes are part of CBO’s calculations. The piece also only tangentially references the so-called “Doc Fix” that will greatly impact Medicare spending.

2. The CBO report only analyzed publicly held debt, not all of the debt the federal government has, yet Media Matters says the report analyzed “government debt.” Since publicly held debt is less than 75% of the totality of the national debt, and publicly held debt does not include future debt obligations such as Social Security’s, this could mislead the American people into thinking publicly held debt is the entirety of our nation’s national debt.

3. A mid-report headline quotes the following from former Obama Administration official and economist Jared Bernstein, who says we can put our debt on a “Slow Glide Path” and keep “Medicare, Medicaid, And Social Security As We Know Them Today.” This is inaccurate, since the CBO report assumes the “Doc Fix” will be implemented, as well as the cuts to Medicare in the Affordable Care Act and the aforementioned Affordable Care Act’s tax increases.

4. The CBO baseline budget expectations are those based upon current law. The alternative scenario is based upon expected political actions, aka current policy, and shows a fiscal scenario that is far, far worse than the baseline expectations. Does Media Matters find the baseline budget more feasible than the alternative scenario, given the delayed implementation of several major policies in recent years, including ending the Bush tax policies, implementing the payment reimbursement cuts in the “Doc Fix,” and taxing millions of Americans under the AMT? Also, does Media Matters actually expect the full Budget Control Act to be implemented, given the push by Republicans to overturn the hundreds of billions in defense cuts the Act made law and the push by Democrats to diminish the Act’s impact on social programs?

I reached out to Media Matters’ press office and asked them about these issues and one not included here. Disappointingly, rather than substantively refute most of my points, here was the response:

The point here is to demonstrate out how the media favors sensationalism and fearmongering when covering debt issues. In presenting a topline summary of our research, we have to balance the need for specificity with the need to communicate in plain language. And there are plenty of economists who have explained why the most relevant way to talk about appropriate debt levels is as a percentage of GDP. The assumptions CBO relied on can be found in the report. Again, our point here was to highlight how the media picks and chooses data to fit into a predetermined, sensationalist narrative.

Regardless of party or philosophical affiliation, this explanation should not be satisfactory to those who partake in today’s political debates. Bias is one thing — Media Research Center is conservative, Media Matters is liberal — but making up facts should be unacceptable for any organization, especially one that declares itself a non-profit dedicated to correcting misinformation. My friend and Just Facts President Jim Agresti, for example, admits his non-profit’s employees and board members have conservative/libertarian philosophical leanings, yet this does not stop Just Facts from reporting the truth about the light bulb ban or the Social Security “lockbox,” regardless of whether it goes against the message of the Republican Party and conservative media establishment.

This year’s tax and spending debates are gearing up to be perhaps the most significant in decades, and could very well decide whether our nation continues its fiscal free-fall or sets itself back on the road to fiscal solvency. The paths forward are many, and all have their place in the public forum, but ignoring the facts in order to keep on message is something all sides should disdain.

[Originally published in the Hot Air Green Room.]

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