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April 4, 2013 at 4:20pm
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"There’s no such thing as a neutral story. But there is such a thing as an honest story."

How did NPR end up repackaging extreme right-wing talking points into a week-long series claiming to tell the “hidden” truth about disability’s explosive growth in our recession economy? Journalist Chana Joffe-Walt says she spent six months “reporting on the growth of federal disability programs” and trying to “understand what that meant.”  She gets it almost all completely wrong, down to the beautifully-colored graphs.  Here are some clues as to why.

I.

NPR’s series on disability included an episode of “This American Life” and six days of segments on the news show “All Things Considered,” all based on research by “Planet Money” reporter Chana Joffe-Walt. She tells listeners that our country’s disability programs are a “hidden, increasingly expensive safety net.”  She concludes that the growth is due to “squishy” definitions of disability that “can end up with one person with high blood pressure who is labeled disabled and another who is not.”  The people flooding disability rolls have lost their jobs but are still capable of working, or they are children whose parents are using them to get family income. This is happening because of a “disability-industrial complex” that pushes people onto a “de facto welfare program” because that hides our real unemployment numbers, is cheaper for states, and makes some lawyers a lot of money. No one planned or intended this result, she says, and no one is really paying attention, but it threatens to bankrupt our Social Security system and drain the federal budget. Getting benefits rather than working is a “deal” that 14 million American have “chosen” for themselves. Many listeners heard all this and felt grateful for such a challenging, thought-provoking, in-depth piece.

The problem is that almost none of what she said is true.

Since the series aired, experts have rushed to document the facts and urge corrections: the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities herehere, and here; the Center for Economic and Policy Research here and here; the Shriver Center here; law professor James Kwak here; Media Matters here; disability rights activists here; and legal services advocates here. Over 120 organizations have signed on to a call for NPR to retract the series, and to top it off, no less than eight former commissioners of the Social Security Administration wrote an open letter outlining their “significant concerns,” saying they “could not sit on the sidelines and witness this one perspective on the disability programs threaten to pull the rug out from under millions of people with severe disabilities.”

According to these sources, applications are up due to the recession, but the approval rate held steady. Experts attribute growth in the real number of people receiving benefits to demographics: the aging of the baby boomer generation, the timing of women joining the workforce in greater numbers. Evidence does not actually show a meaningful shift of people from the tightened welfare rolls to the disability system. There are historic and medical reasons why the most common types of disabling conditions have changed since the 1950s. Disabled people are not simply choosing to lounge around rather than get a job, since around 60% of SSDI applicants are denied and around 50% of even those denied remain persistently unemployed.  If people are qualifying in greater numbers, it is because they actually qualify: they are disabled. Hale County is in many ways is not representative of larger trends. And, crucially, if Joffe-Walt had found out even the most basic facts about how the disability determination process works, she would know that the definitions are in fact stringent and that it is a legitimate part of that process to consider a person’s education level and employability.

As the Shriver Center said, “Nothing ‘squishy’ about it, once you understand it.”

II.

How then, could a reporter, and three different NPR brands spend so much time and effort on something that is so wrong? To start, in all her research and airtime, Joffe-Walt quoted only three experts, and they share one narrow, controversial perspective.

It turns out that Joffe-Walt’s reporting very closely tracks a set of talking points disseminated by a handful of linked think tanks and echoed by astroturf groups.  The same talking points showed up late last year in Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times columns asserting that Kentucky parents were purposely preventing their children from learning in order to preserve their SSI benefits (this was largely debunked, and subject to a critical response by the Times’ Public Editor). A few years ago a story from the Baltimore City Paper hit all the same “surprising” insights that Joffe-Walt did, down to a similar section on obscure companies that help identify people who may qualify for disability assistance.  (And in the mid-90s, there was a startlingly similar media frenzy which led to a staggering number of children losing their benefits before being revealed as based in fantasy and anecdote more than fact.)

There is, of course, a particular agenda at work here: the dismantling of the social safety net.  Policy papers and op-eds like the following, with similarly misleading statistics and examples and calling for “reform” of SSDI and SSI, have been issued by the libertarian Cato Institute, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, as well as the more centrist Center for American Progress and Brookings Institution.  These are consistently based on work by Joffe-Walt’s main sources, the economist team David Autor and Mark Duggan, as well as Mary Daly, another economist she cites later in the series, and Daly’s partner Richard Burkhauser.

Despite what Joffe-Walt claimed, this isn’t hidden or new information: the same actors have been saying the same things for years. They’d like to radically restructure these disability programs, turning them into private insurance products or block granting them to the states along with reduced funding, sometimes questionably recast as “waivers.” And this think tank echo chamber is heavily subsidized by Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire investor who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to dismantle Medicare, Social Security, and recently the disability programs that are the subject of the NPR series.

Right while Joffe-Walt’s pieces were airing, Washington was poised to weigh these very issues. The dollars Peterson spends to promote deficit fearmongering help manufacture a budget crisis (the fiscal cliff, "Fix the Debt"), but Mitt Romney’s loss signaled popular support for raising revenue from the rich who have paid too little in taxes, and against the logic of austerity.  In a calculus designed to get those tax measures through, Obama again is testing the waters to see if he can get away with proposing a budget that includes some cuts to the social safety net.  While Democratic lawmakers have pushed back, they may be looking for an excuse to give in.  In the midst of these decisions, Joffe-Walt’s piece seeds questions about whether the disability programs are too generous, whether some undefined number of people really don’t need them, whether some cuts to SSDI and SSI might not be so bad.

And, despite the fact that she provided little real evidence for her borrowed thesis, Joffe-Walt’s series immediately went viral. It’s a neat package, and everyone can see what they want in it (a changing economy that should force us to face hard truths, for some, and proof of the freeloading we always suspected, for others). It’s on right-wing TV showsblogswebsitesnewspaper columns, and the websites of the same think tank sites that generated the misleading information in the first place. They all love the series. Next month the think tanks have a conference scheduled on the very topic, funded by Peterson’s foundation, and Joffe-Walt’s reporting will surely be used in Congressional hearings before long. This is what expert propaganda looks like.

III.

It was through this skewed ideological framework that Joffe-Walt saw the subjects of her reporting, the disabled jobless and children of America.  Consider how she used one of these kids, ten-year-old Jahleel Duroc.

She talks to Jahleel, who she says is disabled “in the eyes of the government.”  Based on chatting with him about his favorite school subjects, she says: “Jahleel is a kid you can imagine doing very well for himself. He is delayed. But given the right circumstances and support, it’s easy to believe that over the course of his schooling Jahleel could catch up.” Okay, we’re imagining. She then insinuates that Jahleel’s mom might hold back his improvement, despite wanting him to do well in school, to keep the money coming (she won’t be able to help herself!). This is based on nothing, except possibly more imagining. Joffe-Walt is not a doctor, or a social worker, or a teacher, and unless she is psychic, she is in no position to assess the needs and capabilities of this real boy whose picture and name she uses for her own ends.

But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she  used Jahleel to expound on “some basic things we’d all agree on”  about the care of our children:

Kids should be encouraged to go to school. Kids should want to do well in school. Parents should want their kids to do well in school. Kids should be confident their parents can provide for them regardless of how they do in school. Kids should become more and more independent as they grow older and hopefully be able to support themselves at around age 18.

Yes, we can all agree on that. Then Joffe-Walt drops the hammer:

The disability program stands in opposition to every one of these aims.

Think about that sweeping declaration. Good people of this country who care about kids like Jahleel, her logic follows, need to change the way this program functions – it means well but is actually hurting our children. Moments like this in the series struck many listeners, sparked their interest and concern, and are a part of why it went viral.

Again, there is one main problem. The disability program does not do any such thing.  Her statement is indefensible.  You could line up over a hundred groups that work with disabled people and a bunch of former Social Security Commissioners to tell you that her conclusion is baseless – and of course that’s exactly what happened once the piece aired (remember those letters?).  In the face of such criticism, This American Life’s Ira Glass proclaimed that every line spoken by Joffe-Walt was fact-checked, leaving you to wonder what this fact-checking involved if it left in place lines like that, so horribly and disastrously wrong.

IV.

Last year another This American Life episode turned out not to have been fully fact-checked, and host Ira Glass devoted a full hour to processing where things went wrong.  Mike Daisey, the theater monologist who crafted the episode, essentially said that he lied in the service of revealing a greater truth.  The problems at Apple’s Chinese factories, his subject, were real, and were the focus of an intensive NY Times investigation around that same time. There was much hand wringing about whether Daisey’s fabrications and the reactions to them undermined attention to the actual issue that he hoped to illuminate. Glass felt betrayed, Daisey admitted to his trickery before all the show’s listeners, and not a lot of light was shed on any deeper issues created by This American Life having evolved over the years towards an amalgam of personal narrative and investigative reporting.

In This American Life’s partnership with Planet Money to focus on disability benefit programs, the delicate balance of this genre seems to have strained to its breaking point.    Planet Money, a news-formatted feature that has been criticized for ideologically-driven reporting before, was originally birthed from a 2008 This American Life piece on the subprime financial crisis. It raised controversy by accepting an exclusive corporate sponsor, with direct financial stake in many topics the show covers, such as the causes of the mortgage meltdown and the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (a bizarrely combative Planet Money interview with now-Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had helped shape the CFPB, sparked further concern, as have some aggressively pro-Wall Street columns by Planet Money’s creator Adam Davidson).  The Ally Bank sponsorship reportedly ended at the beginning of this year, and it is unclear whether the show has current sponsors – or is seeking any particular ones – though the Lincoln Financial Group ads appearing on the disability series’ webpage have been noted, along with Lincoln’s potential interest in possible privatization of disability benefits.

Now, as when the Daisey lies were revealed, Glass said his show holds to the same journalistic standards as other national news programs, and that the questioned episodes were fully fact-checked. But troubling signals cast doubt on those claims.  At the same time Glass claimed to know of no errors in Joffe-Walt’s piece, four lines in the online version had already been altered to directly change their meaning from what had been heard in the radio broadcast. These changes were buried in footnotes and misleadingly described as “clarifications” (other lines that make similarly unsupported sweeping claims remain “unclarified”). For its part, All Things Considered recorded a final segment that attempted damage control by grossly mischaracterizing pushback to the series, attributing it to beneficiaries fearful that too much scrutiny of the disability programs could endanger their benefits. No mention was made of the many experts or organizations who have called for the series’ retraction.   NPR’s ethics guide rightly describes a goal of completeness, recognizing that things can be technically accurate but fundamentally untrue:

When we say our reporting is complete, it means we understand the bigger picture of a story – which facts are most important and how they relate to one another. It’s unrealistic to expect that every story should represent every perspective on an issue. But in our reporting, we must do our best to be aware of all perspectives, the facts supporting or opposing each, and the different groups of stakeholders affected by the issue. Only then can we determine what’s best to include in the time and space we have.

Yet neither program has publicly addressed how Joffe-Walt’s pervasive errors and, more generally, the profound imbalance in her sourcing distort the series’ very framing and conclusions.

In the past, NPR omsbudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos has suggested that at some point, listeners must simply trust the basic integrity of NPR, PRI and their reporters. This also drove his predecessor’s response to the Planet Money-Ally Bank controversy. But that trust depends on some key safeguards being in place, and can not last long in their absence. There must be consistent disclosure when segments have specific sponsorship or underwriting, in both broadcast and online versions.  Sources must be adequately identified, with some sense of context for their viewpoints. Corrections to written text must be made according to journalistic standards for online news media, and issues of fundamental imbalance or error must be dealt with honestly and comprehensively. Listeners can only critically judge the content presented to them if they are given the right tools.  None of these markers have been met for Joffe-Walt’s series, much least completeness, since in all that airtime she quotes only three connected academics, and presents no counter-opinions or context to show if their positions are mainstream or marginal. It is not at all clear whether there was any outside funding or underwriting for the series or its research, a question that must be directly answered. NPR and PRI’s integrity depends on facing and redressing each of these failures. Meanwhile, Ira Glass must come to understand that fabrications are not the only untruths that need to be guarded against.

What gets easily obscured is why all these facts and corrections large and small matter.  Why can’t Daisey  make up details that will create the right emotional grab, even though even though he is sure he is right about the big picture, and even if he is right? Because sooner or later there will be a story where the reporter thinks they know what needs to be told, the story, the message, the big picture – but they will be wrong. A smart and talented reporter like Chana Joffe-Walt will decide to talk about disability in America, without being disabled or poor, without getting enough facts, and she will get the story incredibly, tragically wrong. And the mistakes will have consequences.  Whether the reasons are innocent, or rooted in bias or some improper influence – it will happen for the simple reason that we don’t know the truths of other people’s lives.

We don’t know by looking at someone whether they are “really” disabled.

A reporter and her editor’s backaches are not the same as those of an assembly line worker.

And yes, people’s hard, complicated lives continue on after the journalists who came to town to cover a factory closure leave.

V.

In order to tell these stories, to actually do real reporting, we need to talk to the people we are talking about.  It’s sadly ironic that a maxim of the disability rights movement is the phrase “nothing about us, without us.”  Instead of those voices, Joffe-Walt’s listeners got a retired Alabama judge, a man who did not himself rule on disability cases, explaining how he could just tell whether a man he ran into on the street was really disabled. This reveals more about attitudes towards disability than it does about disability itself. The engagement, interaction, and real conversation with others that was so strikingly absent here is at the heart of all good journalism as it is of democracy.

There is a reason that democratic deliberation is itself a direct target of the same moneyed interests behind the propaganda NPR ended up spreading through this series.  They set set up astroturf groups to manipulate political debate. They’ve called for an unelected commission brave enough, which is to say insulated enough from popular will, to enact their recommended “reforms” to these social safety net programs. On other fronts, they want to dissolve school boards (replacing them with mayoral or state control) and City Councils (installing emergency managers), all to ease the path of reforms that lack true popular support – reforms that aim to hollow out and privatize our most core public functions and assets.  And the groundwork is laid for such power shifts through an incredibly well-funded network of foundations, think tanks, and communication firms.   From the policy papers they fund to the free educational curricula they write to those fake nonprofits they prop up, they are trying to shape the very language we use to talk about our basic needs (“entitlements”).

This is how men like Pete Peterson and Mitt Romney – who have made fortunes not by creating lasting value but by stripping it from companies and out of our economy so it can be transferred to the pockets of private shareholders, to themselves – can convince us that that they are not the real “takers.” No, the real takers are the 47%. The elderly, the veterans, the poor, the addicted, the permanently injured, the laid off. Poor, disabled babies and children. Jahleel Duroc and his family. A lot of them may just be faking it.  We’ll only be able to tell if we cut off benefits: as in medieval witch trials - when the accused had to prove their innocence by drowning – we’ll know who is really disabled after we see reactions to the “incentive” of losing one’s income, food, utilities, and housing.

Although NPR helped stoke a dangerous mythology with this series, the truth does still tend to prevail. Eventually, lies overreach and the seams show.  Maybe a bartender gets mad and pulls back the curtain. You can’t “incentivize” someone to get a job that doesn’t exist. People really are disabled, and the poverty-level benefits they receive are not actually like winning the lottery. Workers do need sick days. Teachers are not parasites destroying our schools.  And I want to think that you can’t trick us into supporting disastrous cuts to programs we support and benefit from, programs that protect the most vulnerable among us.

image

Title quotation from Scott Rosenberg, "Mr. Daisey and the fact factory."

Notes

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    If you listened to This American Life’s piece a few weeks ago, “Trends With Benefits,” now read this.
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