A Man, A Man, A Plan, Not Approved

In a profile of Democratic US Representative Kurt Schrader in yesterday’s Oregonian, reporter Charles Pope inserts these two explanatory paragraphs after a mention of the Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform:

Simpson-Bowles is a reference to Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired a committee appointed by President Barack Obama charged with writing a blueprint for reducing the deficit. They did, producing a work that cut the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years through a combination of spending cuts, tax hikes and changes in Medicare and other entitlements.

It was ignored.

As anyone who’s followed the history of the commission is well aware, it was established with a requirement that the “final report will require the approval of at least 14 of the Commission’s 18 members.” The report that came out of the committee received only 11 votes, however, and was therefore unapproved.

Yet Pope’s article—like much reporting about Simpson-Bowles—elides that part of the story, through unfamiliarity with the subject or willful ignorance.

There are two particular points in the quotes paragraphs that I thought were particularly misleading. “They did” in the second sentence clearly—to me, at least—refers to the committee and its appointed task of writing a deficit-reduction plan. While it’s technically true that a plan was written, it was never approved by the committee (under the committee’s own rules) so it seems a shade untrue to claim that they accomplished their task.

The three-word paragraph “It was ignored.”, set apart for obvious emphasis, further implies that the committee’s plan was one that had been agreed to. If the plan wasn’t approved, there’s really nothing to be ignored. What you have instead is a plan that didn’t meet the criteria for implementation.

I pointed out the fact that the plan hadn’t been passed by the committee in emails to the Oregonian Letters page and to the reporter, then received this note back from Therese Bottomly, the managing editor.

Thanks for your note. The story said they wrote the blueprint. It doesn’t say anything about the committee approving it.

My response added that reasoning was further clouded by the paragraph about the plan being ignored, to which Ms. Bottomly reiterated:

Hi, I think it is clear that when we say “they did” we mean they did write a blueprint. Thanks for reading.

I pointed out that this ignored the part about the unapproved plan being ignored. Her last response:

Hi, it might have been better to include that it did not clear the committee, but the overall point is there was a lot in there that could have been worked on. There is a lot of history to that plan the story did not go into.

I guess that’s good enough for the Oregonian. It doesn’t matter if the story’s facts are accurate so long as it feels right. Truthiness will out. My last note to the editor:

The history that it does go into is flat-out wrong, though, which is the reason I wrote. Merits or detractions of the plan aside, saying the plan was “ignored”—the longest of three words in a paragraph clearly meant to emphasize the point that no action was taken—itself ignores why the plan wasn’t implemented.

It was never approved. In order to be implemented, it had to get approval of the committee. Without an approved plan, there was no official committee report and there was nothing to ignore.

These are basic facts that were wrong in the story. You’re not doing the public a service by pretending it was accurate or that more explanation would have cleared things up. It’s simply inaccurate to claim that a plan was produced by the committee and then ignored—which is the gist of the two paragraphs I referenced in the article—when, if fact, no plan was released by the committee.