Being a long-time critic of the mainstream news media, it’s worth a few moments for me to unpack the paragraph in my pension-related post, yesterday, which I summarized on Twitter thus: “With pensions, a false expert consensus forms that journalists don’t want to challenge too forcefully.” The Twitter statement might have been a bit more inflammatory than it had to be, inasmuch as the pension issue provides context for a charitable interpretation of the dynamic that conservatives call “bias.”
Approaching issues of public policy, I start out with an innate suspicion of government and unions. So when I come across a pension reform that doesn’t either gut the system and throw what remains into personal investment accounts or hit taxpayers with a massive invoice, my attitude is one of looking for the scam. With that view, it’s possible to be open and objective in the sense that I may reach the point of saying, “If there’s a scam here, I can’t find it.” The point is, though, that I start out tuned and motivated to find it.
Even a journalist who doesn’t have an enculturated sense that government is generally good will come to issues like pensions from a different angle. (And, sorry, I do think it comes through that most journalists have that pro-government sensibility.)
Very often, a journalist whose watchword is “objectivity” faces the task of measuring the word of government officials and their expert consultants (decked out with all the fancy trappings and public-relations spin that taxpayer money can buy) against the repeatedly contrarian assertions of smaller groups whose motivation (for good or ill) is not as clear. In the case of Raimondo’s pension reform, for example, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity was a brand new group with private funding that brought in experts connected with a national movement, and with a single local researcher (me) who was still a working carpenter at the time.
Given the modern media business, journalists don’t have the time to become experts on everything on which they have to report, and when it comes to something like pension funds, even digging enough to be able to understand the differences of opinion between the government experts and the full-time carpenters can be a slog through turgid, technical texts.
All that said, the difference in reportage when journalists (as a group) want government to do something is remarkable. When it comes to issues of race or gun control, for example, reporters’ suspicion of contrary claims is palpable. I think think they tend to be wrong in such cases, and I think a belief that government can and should take action on those sorts of issues contributes to a willingness to believe that government can do things like manage massive pension funds. But they should spend more time looking for the scam, because if government doesn’t get things right with budgets and economic policy, none of the other stuff is going to matter in the long term.