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Where political journalism must not go

Associated Press

If Newsweek's goal was to spark some conversation, Niall Ferguson's new cover story is a smashing success -- it's generating far more interest than the magazine's pieces usually do.

If, however, Newsweek's goal is to strengthen its reputation, and gain new respect as a major news outlet, Ferguson's new cover story marks an ignominious low for the once-great magazine, tarnishing the publication's reputation in ways likely to do lasting, irreparable harm.

The broader point of the piece is pretty straightforward: Ferguson disapproves of President Obama and wants him to lose. That, in and of itself, would make this rather unremarkable, and hardly worth making a fuss over.

The problem, however, is that in the course of launching his lengthy, 3,300-word attack, Ferguson publishes a series of claims with no foundation in reality. I'm not talking about errors of judgment, I'm referring to transparent errors of fact -- Ferguson wrote easily-checkable claims about health care, the stimulus, China, job creation, Paul Ryan, and taxes, all of which completely fall apart after minimal scrutiny.

Remember, this isn't some randomly-published piece of commentary, featured on an obscure conservative website; this is the cover story of Newsweek -- which ostensibly has editors.

I've seen several detailed fact-checking pieces published over the last couple of days, and I don't intend to reinvent the wheel. Matthew O'Brien, James Fallows, and Noah Smith have all published worthwhile takedowns, and they're worth your time.

But there's one problem in particular that helps capture why Ferguson's piece represents political journalism at its most atrocious.

Ferguson argues that President Obama promised the Affordable Care Act wouldn't add to the deficit. In reality, this is a promise Obama has kept, but Ferguson cites CBO and Joint Committee on Taxation reports showing that extending coverage and benefits "will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period."

If you're thinking, "Oh god, I know where this is going," keep reading because it's worse than you think.

Paul Krugman explained the problem with Ferguson's half-cocked nonsense.

Readers are no doubt meant to interpret this as saying that CBO found that the Act will increase the deficit. But anyone who actually read, or even skimmed, the CBO report knows that it found that the ACA would reduce, not increase, the deficit -- because the insurance subsidies were fully paid for.

Now, people on the right like to argue that the CBO was wrong. But that's not the argument Ferguson is making -- he is deliberately misleading readers, conveying the impression that the CBO had actually rejected Obama's claim that health reform is deficit-neutral, when in fact the opposite is true.

More than that: by its very nature, health reform that expands coverage requires that lower-income families receive subsidies to make coverage affordable. So of course reform comes with a positive number for subsidies -- finding that this number is indeed positive says nothing at all about the impact on the deficit unless you ask whether and how the subsidies are paid for. Ferguson has to know this (unless he's completely ignorant about the whole subject, which I guess has to be considered as a possibility). But he goes for the cheap shot anyway.

In order to publish this lie, Ferguson counted up the costs, ignored the savings and receipts, and presented a bogus net total. It's like saying the Patriots won the Super Bowl because they scored 14 points. But didn't the Giants score 17 points? No, no, that doesn't matter. The only thing that counts is that the Patriots scored 14 points. If you ignore one side of the scoreboard, the argument makes perfect sense.

Making matters much, much worse, Ferguson decided to challenge Krugman's facts with an angry response, pointing to a CBO report that he's certain proves him right.

It doesn't. As Dylan Byers explained, "[I]n order to get himself out of that predicament, Ferguson decides to edit the CBO report to satisfy his own conclusions.... Ferguson cut the CBO excerpt off mid-sentence and changed the meaning entirely.... So, one more time: The Oxford-trained, Harvard-employed, Newsweek contibutor Niall Ferguson just edited the CBO report to change its meaning."

What Ferguson and Newsweek published isn't journalism; it's a joke.