Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Reader mail ...

Josh -

You've mentioned Social security as insurance, previously, but I think the point deserves more emphasis. Reducing social security benefits and replacing (some of) the lost benefits with private investment accounts is still gambling EVEN if the accounts earn a relatively optimistic rate of return, and EVEN if the accounts are limited to conservative investment options. The reason why private investment accounts are RISKY is because people don't know how long they will live. Someone living to (say) 95 is going to do much worse with private investments, simply because the privately invested money is going to run out well before they die.

The scam here (on the part of those trying to sell private investment accounts as a substitute) is that they (implicitly) are talking about what someone who lives to the AVERAGE lifespan will be getting. But half (or so) of retirees are going to live LONGER than average. This half will either have to withdraw money more slowly (live less well) [and how will they be able to predict this?] or will exhaust their private investment accounts long before they die.

So with private accounts, those who die early end up with some (or much) of their money going to the heirs, and those who die late end up (potentially) in poverty. Only the hypothetical "average" person (the one who dies at an average age, having exactly exhausted his/her private investments at exactly the right time) is going to do as well as any "predicted" outcome for private investment accounts<$NoAd$>.


It's insurance.

The Times today has an article running-down the Armstrong Williams flap. Like others, they relate this incident to the earlier instances in which the same PR company -- Ketchum -- produced phony news segments for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

One passage of the article, however, suggests that the government-funded phony news segment phenomena is not new and that, if anything, the Clinton administration did even more of it than the Bush administration.

Thus ...

But public relations executives said that the government distribution of prepared news segments without on-air disclosures of their origin was a bipartisan practice that predated the Bush administration.

"The Clinton administration was probably even more active than the Bush administration" in distributing news segments promoting its policies, said Laurence Moskowitz, chairman and chief executive of Medialink, a major producer of promotional news segments. After the Government Accountability Office decision last spring, he said, his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape's nature in its script.

This passage appears to remove the partisan dimension from the story. Yet it provides no examples of similar <$Ad$>productions under the Clinton administration.

Moreover, it appears to elide the main distinction. The GAO study which found the Bush administration productions to have been illegal rested that judgment not on the failure to disclose their source explicitly but because of the tagline "this is Karen Ryan reporting," which ended each segment.

This, they reasoned, was not simply a failure to disclose, but a positive effort to mislead viewers into believing they were watching a news report rather than a government-produced public service announcement.

(Bush administration officials were eventually able to produce for GAO at least one example of a Clinton HHS VNR which also used the 'reporting' tagline.)

Another point worth noting is the source for the Times' claim that this was done as much or even more under the Clinton administration, Laurence Moskowitz, CEO of Medialink, whose company is a major producer of these so-called VNRs.

He told the Times that it was only after the GAO's May 2004 ruling that "his firm began advising government clients to disclose each tape's nature in its script," thus implying that this was a more rigorous standard that only came into application after the May 2004 GAO report.

Yet a May 24th, 2004 article in PR Week says that these disclosure requirements have long been an established standard embodied in the guidelines of the Public Relations Society of America. And indeed in that very article, Moskowitz himself is quoted as telling PR Week: "We have always subscribed to attribution and full disclosure in the script. The GAO ruling says that if you produce a video that is fully disclosed and appropriately attributed, you are within the proper use of federal money and, therefore, not in violation (emphasis added)."

Now that Armstrong Williams has recognized that his acceptance of a quarter million dollars to shill for the No Child Left Behind act was an instance of "bad judgment" on his part, it is presumably only a matter of time till he mounts the pulpit of Larry King Live and announces his decision to undergo a full-fledged program of journalistic ethics recovery, presumably under the guidance of some such worthy as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Dr. Phil, or perhaps, if he turns out to need a truly thorough journalistic dunking, Tom Rosenstiel.

But once we get past Williams himself, how about this?

Everyone has quickly and rightly connected the Armstrong Williams story to earlier instances where the administration used government funds to produce pro-Bush political propaganda. There were the phony news segments produced for the Department of Education to push the No Child Left Behind Act, similar phony news segments produced for HHS to push the new Medicare law, and the Department of Education ratings system devised to rate how different news outlets ranked on No Child Left Behind act orthodoxy and the Republican party's commitment to education.

But there's something else that links all these instances together. They were all contracted through one PR firm: Ketchum.

I don't know anything about the company. Just on a lark, I looked up the political giving of the CEO, Ray Kotcher, and noticed that until 2004 he -- and what appears to be his wife -- seemed to give exclusively to Democrats. In 2004, he had a change of heart, however, and gave $15,000 to RNC. Perhaps it was the war on terror. Who knows?

In any case, with talk of investigations already in the air and House Republicans consenting at least to one of the Williams deal, perhaps a way to narrow the focus would be to simply find out which other branches of the government Ketchum was working for and what services they provided.

Late Update: A little more digging.

There seems to be relatively little reporting on the Kentchum dimension of all these instances of the Bush administration's taxpayer-funded political propaganda. So it's hard to see just who at Ketchum or which divisions of the company were doing the work for the administration. But you'd figure it'd be their Public Affairs branch or their Washington lobbying shop.

It turns out that a big part of Ketchum's Washington operation is something called The Washington Group. TWG was founded in 1997 by three former Democratic Hill staffers. But Ketchum bought them out back in 2001 -- actually two days after President Bush's first inauguration, on January 22nd. And in the spirit of the times, Ketchum quickly began trying to help TWG bulk up on its Republican connections. In October, for instance, former Congresswoman Susan Molinari was installed as President and CEO of TWG, in order to provide the firm's clients with what Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher described, it would seem rather presciently, as "a strong campaign-style approach to public affairs."

A year and a half later, Carlos Bonilla joined TWG as a senior vice president after leaving his post as special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic policy. "Carlos Bonilla," said Molinari when Bonilla signed on, "brings an invaluable combination of White House policy and D.C. politics to The Washington Group." In January 2004, Molinari was appointed President of Ketchum Public Affairs, a post she continues to hold in tandem with her job as CEO of TWG.

In the week since Bob Matsui's untimely death, I've tried to separate the painful issue of his passing from our aggressive coverage of the emerging Social Security fight.

But Matsui was and would have been central to this fight, as the Democratic point-man on Social Security. So his passing means Democrats, or specifically House Democrats, must decide soon who will lead the charge against the president's Social Security phase-out plan -- in terms of strategy, message and, very importantly, as their public (i.e., media) voice on the issue.

Now, I was a bit distressed yesterday when I saw Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who was next in line in seniority to Matsui on the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, quoted on the Bloomberg wire on President Bush's phase-out plan.

Saith Bloomberg ...

Representative Ben Cardin of Maryland, a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee who is being courted by Republicans to support the accounts, said he would find it difficult to support the plan if its impact on the deficit, which reached a record $412 billion last year, isn't reflected in the budget.

"If he doesn't show how he's going to pay for it, then it's not a credible proposal from the point of view of, I think, most Democrats,'' Cardin said.

Now, I don't know about you. But that struck me as a tad equivocal. On its face, Cardin simply seemed to say that he couldn't support a phase-out bill if its costs weren't accurately reflected in the budget. But most Democrats stand in a rather more fundamental opposition -- as in opposing any phase-out plan, and especially one that will require adding one or two trillion dollars in debt.

I'm sure Cardin will come around to the right position. But it's not exactly a rousing defense of the program. And if Republicans even have the slightest inkling that they can turn the Dems' Social Security point-man over to the phase-out option, as Bloomberg suggests, something must be seriously amiss.

On the other hand, just one notch below Cardin on the subcommittee is Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota.

To the best of my recollection I've never met Pomeroy or spoken to him. But a friend of mine who knows this issue and the House very well tells me that Pomeroy not only has a deep belief in Social Security but also a deep and nuanced understanding of the program. He's also someone who can make a reasoned but also determined and persuasive case for preserving Social Security for the future. As I've said a hundred times already, party unity is critical on this issue, as is organizing. But at the end of the day they are a means to an end. And that end is persuading Americans across the country the defenders of Social Security are right on this issue and President Bush is wrong.

[An added plus with Pomeroy is that he comes from a really red state, but seems eager for this battle to protect Social Security. It is important to demonstrate clearly that whatever may be case with other issues, Social Security isn't an issue that Dems from conservative or rural districts need to run away from. In fact, I think quite the opposite.]

In any case, Pomeroy seems like the guy for the job. Not the only one, mind you. There's plenty of work to go around. And -- God forbid -- I'm not saying anyone should leapfrog the seniority queue. But he should be front and center on the Dems' Social Security team and conspicuous on the shows. Not doing so might be a really big mistake.

This is interesting. The Democratic Party of San Fernando Valley, a coalition of 24 Democratic clubs located in or partly in the Valley [i.e., the suburbs on the northwest side of LA], just passed a resolution against President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan. And as part of their resolution they resolve "not [to] endorse or support financially any Democratic candidate who expresses support, advocates for, or votes for such a plan."

Sounds like they're pretty clear on where they stand.

From a reader ...

Question: who else has been on the payroll?

They sank a quarter of a million into one not so prominent commentator to push a single issue -- not even one where they really needed help -- and they never greased anyone else? Not so credible.

Anyway, just asking . . .


Sounds about right.

Itsy witsy bitsy privatization<$NoAd$>?

Wolf Blitzer questioning Treasury Secretary John Snow on the president's phase-out plan, which recent reports say will divert as much as 30% of revenues into private accounts (emphasis added) ...

In terms of legislative strategy, do you envisage the Social Security reform that the president is proposing, the little partial privatization of Social Security, for that legislative battle to precede the tax simplification battle, if in fact, there is a battle? Or to be simultaneous? These two issues coming before the Congress around same time.

Perhaps there'll be an Olympic competition for egregious mimickry of the White House party-line. Of course, Armstrong Williams couldn't compete, since he's already gone pro ...

[ed.note: Special thanks to TPM reader LS.]

A new statement from Sen. Feinstein of California on private accounts: "I strongly oppose private accounts, which could cost $1 trillion or more and still fail to improve the financial condition of Social Security. Unless I see a proposal that protects the fiscal health of Social Security and does not dramatically increase the national debt, I will continue my opposition."

Here would be some time very well spent.

We've noted before that the "on hold" recording that now plays when you call the Social Security Administration includes thinly-veiled Bush administration propaganda about Social Security's insolvency and the need for "long range changes" in the program, and the sooner the better. Similar verbiage is now contained in the mailings that the SSA sends out to all Americans who pay into the system, describing their lifetime earnings and projected benefits.

And I'm told that this soft pro-privatization propaganda has been getting more pointed over the last three years, even as the actuaries at SSA have been reporting that the predicted Social Security funding shortfalls are receding further and further into the future.

So here's the idea -- one that takes on even more timeliness with the revelations today about the administration and Armstrong Williams: why not prepare a well-crafted FOIA request to the SSA requesting any and all documents relating to the preparation and authorship of the increasingly pro-privatization boilerplate that appears and plays on the SSA's various mailings and phone recordings?

Go back to 2001 and bring it up until today.

Who will do it?

Courtesy of Atrios, this from USA Today ...

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."

I can't say I'm too exercised <$Ad$> one way or another about Armstrong Williams' professional ethics, or lack thereof. But taxpayer money for this? This sounds like it's clearly political work. Perhaps that fat Bush-Cheney campaign fund should reimburse the taxpayers. If the White House wants to fully fund Armstrong Williams instead of the NCLB bill, let them do it on their own dime.

PS. This also gets us back to the issue of OpEd payola, which we discussed back in March 2002 and at other times. This was a topic I was collecting information on for years, but so far at least never got around to writing. As I said in that earlier post, many more OpEds than you'd imagine are bought and paid for. At a few of the premium dailies it's hard to pull off. But beyond those it's pretty common, though often without the editors even being aware of it. There are even a few prominent papers known by those in the business to be an easy (and willing) mark.