Carelessly Mistaking Theater For Policy

Carelessly Mistaking Theater For Policy

Candidates for the Repub­lican presi­denti­al nomin­ation engag­ed in a debat­e at Fox News forum­. (Photo: Todd Heisl­er / Th­e New York Times­)

One crucial thing you need to understand about political journalists in the United States is that, with some honorable exceptions, they don’t know or care about actual policy.

In a way, that makes sense — the skills needed to cultivate contacts, to get the inside scoop on what’s going on in Congressional scheming or campaign war rooms, are very different from the skills needed to interpret spreadsheets from the Congressional Budget Office.

The problem, however, is that all too often political journalists mistake the theater of policy for reality (or don’t care about the difference).

Hence, the awful decision of Politico to give Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, an award as the health care policy maker of the year.

Even if you like the thrust of Mr. Ryan’s ideas, even if you think privatizing Medicare and turning it into a voucher scheme is fine, what became painfully, embarrassingly clear during the debate over the Ryan plan was that Mr. Ryan is, well, incompetent. The plan was a mess, from its invocation of ludicrous Heritage Foundation projections to its crazy assertions about what would happen to discretionary spending. It’s true that the plan “got everyone talking,” as Politico says — but mostly it got people talking about what a mess Mr. Ryan’s effort was.

Oh, and it was pretty clear that Mr. Ryan wasn’t being honest about his own numbers.

What’s going on here, I suppose, is that Politico is mistaking theater for policy. Mr. Ryan isn’t an important health care reformer, or even minimally competent in his attempted wonkery, but he plays a deep thinker on TV.

And the people at Politico either don’t understand the difference, or they don’t care.

Lies and Elections

As we wait to see whether the Republican party nominates for president the guy who claims that his health plan was nothing like Obamacare, (Mitt Romney), or the guy who claims that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million for his work as a historian (Newt Gingrich), one thing is obvious: This election is going to pose a major challenge to the news media. How will they handle the lies problem?

I’m not optimistic.

Back in 2000, George W. Bush made a discovery of enormous consequence: You could base a whole political campaign on claims that were flatly untrue, like the claim that your big tax cuts for the wealthy went to the middle class, or the claim that diverting Social Security funds into private accounts would strengthen the system’s finances, and reporters would never point this out. That’s when I formulated my doctrine that if Bush said the earth was flat, headlines would read: “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”

All indications are, however, that Campaign 2012 will make Campaign 2000 look like a model of truthfulness. And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is to act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased.”

This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance.

This is already happening: as the blogger Igor Volsky at Think Progress points out, one of the finalists for’s Lie of the Year is a Democratic claim — that Republicans want to abolish Medicare — that happens to be entirely true.

This will not be a fun year.

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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2011 The New York Times.