WAPO Ombudsman Defends Hit Job on Social Security: there were ever any doubts that "Fox on 15th Street" was a fitting label for the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, the paper's ombudsman removed them with his defense of the Post's front page piece on Social Security last Sunday. Just to remind readers, the whole premise of that piece, as expressed in its headline, is that Social Security has crossed some "treacherous milestone" because it had gone "cash negative earlier than expected."…
[Yet t]he trust fund is still growing… income to the system, which includes interest on its holdings of government bonds, still exceeds benefit payments…. More money is still coming into the system than is going out…. This is really not something that is arguable -- Social Security has a stream of income from the interest on its bonds. The Post and its ombudsman may not like this fact, but it is nonetheless true.
The ombudsman also chose to ignore several misleading or false claims…. [T]he original piece told readers that "the payroll tax holiday is depriving the system of revenue." This is not true. Under the law, the Social Security system is fully reimbursed for the money not collected as a result of the payroll tax holiday….
If the purpose of the piece was to inform readers rather than to raise fears, it might have been useful to put the projected Social Security shortfall in some context… 0.58 percent of GDP… one-tenth the size of the upward redistribution from the bottom 99 percent to the top 1 percent over the last three decades. These or other comparsions would have been made readers better able to assess the size and implications of Social Security's long-run problems….
[W]hat is perhaps most disturbing is how the ombudsman seeks to settle the issue. He tells readers:
"I spent a couple of days last week talking to Social Security experts across the ideological spectrum. Some, mainly those on the left, didn’t like the story, while those on the right did. But some in the middle, like Jonathan Cowan of the Third Way, declared it realistic and on point."
It is not clear what standing Jonathan Cowan (an English major at Dartmouth college) has to settle this issue other than fitting the Post's definition of being in the middle. One need not have a PhD in a policy field to take part in public debate, but being in the middle of the political spectrum (by the Post's standards) does not make one expert on an issue…. The Post's ombudsman has substituted finding the middle ground for finding the truth. This might be the way the Post conducts itself, but it is not the way a serious newspaper carries through its business.