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False facts

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 4:59 a.m. CST

With many Americans alternately bored and infuriated by the latest made-for-TV fiscal melodrama in Washington, something highly unusual happened. A prominent, name-brand pundit published a column about the “sequestration” battle that was not merely smug, lazy and condescending, but factually false.

So what else is new, right?

What’s newsworthy is that when somebody he couldn’t ignore called him out, the columnist was forced to publicly eat his words. Newsworthy for two reasons: first, because regardless of what they claim about their strict code of professional ethics, Washington political journalists normally cover for each other like cops and Roman Catholic clerics.

It’s been going on for a generation, and worsening as TV stardom and the lecture circuit have made celebrity pundits wealthy.

Secondly, because of what David Brooks’ blunder says about the “fever swamp of the center,” as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait calls it: a mindset reflecting the desperate pretense that “both sides” are equally responsible for Washington’s endless budgetary crises, and all that’s necessary to resolve them is a mature spirit of compromise.

And maybe, too, what the whole charade says about the audience for such piffle: an American public that’s better informed about Tom Brady’s new contract and Kim Kardashian’s cup size than the national budget deficit.

How New York Times editors waved Brooks’ column into print is a mystery. One had the impression things had improved there since the heyday of Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller, whose inept reporting helped bring us the Whitewater hoax and the Iraq War, respectively.

“The DC Dubstep,” Brooks called the column, the joke being that budget sequestration gave Democrats and Republicans alike a chance to do “the dance moves they enjoy the most.”

“Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy,” Brooks wrote, “the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition ... The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.”

Ha, ha, ha! See, Obama’s failure to lead then encourages Republicans to do the “Suicide Stage Dive,” working themselves “into a frenzy of self-admiration,” and leaping “into what they imagine is [sic] the loving arms of their adoring fans” only to “land with a thud on the floor.”

Probably a sober-sided fellow like Brooks shouldn’t attempt satire, which requires a subversive imagination. Also a regular on PBS and NPR, he plays a non-carnivorous Republican--conservative, but not somebody who’s going to carry an AR-15 to a Washington cocktail party.

But the problem with Brooks’ column is more basic. Because, love it or hate it, the White House long ago presented a detailed plan for averting sequestration. President Obama has been flying around the country talking it up every day. You can read it here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/02/21/balanced-plan-avert-sequester-and-reduce-deficit.

Kevin Drum neatly summarized the contents: “specific cuts to entitlements, including the adoption of chained CPI for Social Security and $400 billion in various cuts to healthcare spending, along with further cuts to mandatory programs as well as to both defense and domestic discretionary programs. Altogether, it clocks in at $1.1 trillion in spending cuts and $700 billion in revenue increases, mostly gained from limiting tax deductions for high-end earners.”

In short, you can call the White House plan anything you like. But you can’t call it nonexistent. The entire premise of Brooks’ column was false; the political equivalent of criticizing Bill Belichick’s poor coaching in the 2013 Super Bowl. (His team didn’t get there.) A sportswriter would be laughed out of the press room; maybe out of journalism.

But hey, it’s only national politics, and only the New York Times.

Enter Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s ubiquitous blogger. An ambitious lad of 28, Klein had the temerity to pick up the phone. Apparently, the youngster didn’t understand that these things simply aren’t done. His column, he informed Brooks, was rubbish. Would he like to talk about it?

To his credit, Brooks did, but not before adding an online postscript to his column explaining that he’d “written in a mood of justified frustration over ... fiscal idiocy,” and “should have acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s approach.”

A transcript of Brooks’ deeply embarrassing conversation with his younger rival was posted online. Give him this much: Brooks definitely faced the music. So frank an admission of error rarely appears in the high-dollar press.

And what about you, dear reader?

Recently Bloomberg News published a poll. Asked if the nation’s budget deficit was growing or shrinking, only 6 percent answered correctly: It’s going down. This year’s projected deficit is $600 billion smaller than when President Obama took office.

If you didn’t know that, maybe you’re also part of the problem.

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