On the last day of 2009, the Washington Post ran an article titled “Support grows for tackling nation’s debt.” Its premise was that Congress was poised to impanel a budget deficit commission to examine the nation’s long-term debt and provide recommendations, citing analysis from the Concord Coalition and the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform. The byline included the words “The Fiscal Times,” and at the bottom of the article appeared this disclaimer:

This article was produced by the Fiscal Times, an independent digital news publication reporting on fiscal, budgetary, health-care and international economics issues. Fiscal Times staff writer Adam Graham-Silverman contributed to this report.

Nowhere in that brief does it mention that the Fiscal Times is headed by Pete Peterson, the billionaire hedge fund manager and former Nixon Commerce Secretary who has been bankrolling a decades-long campaign to slash safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare (Incidentally, Peterson also funds both the Concord Coalition and the Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform, the think tanks cited in the article). The Fiscal Times is his latest venture, which will produce articles about fiscal issues and essentially lease them to newspapers. The Washington Post recently entered into a content sharing agreement to run Fiscal Times stories on their news page. So a man dedicated to fraying the nation’s social safety net now has real estate on one of the nation’s most prominent newspapers, and if this initial story is any indication, will use it to push a deficit-mania agenda as a means to subvert legislative procedure and create momentum for major cutbacks. It’s essentially a buyout of a national news section.

Dozens of prominent economists have now written a letter to the Washington Post’s ombudsman, protesting the use of Fiscal Times stories in the news section and calling for an end to the content sharing agreement. The effort has been spearheaded by Nancy Altman, author of the book The Battle for Social Security, who has spent her career working on economic security issues. She drafted the letter, which you can find below. In an interview with FDL News, Altman explained her problems with the Washington Post using a Pete Peterson-funded outlet as a content generator.

“What immediately comes to mind is the scandal a few years back when I recall that it came to light that the Bush administration was circulating stories and video that were being run by news outlets as straight news stories,” Altman said. “Obviously, those issuing press releases love for their words to be printed unchanged. The Fiscal Times is not an independent news source, but an entity funded by Peterson, a man with a clear point of view and an agenda.”

The letter is part of a larger effort to rebut the Peterson Foundation’s money and influence with pushback from multiple angles. As the letter notes, over 40 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Common Cause, NAACP, National Organization for Women and SEIU, have objected to the deficit commission which the Fiscal Times article and Peterson’s organizations in general have promoted. The commission would consist of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and would have its recommendations automatically acted upon by Congress with an up-or-down vote, without the ability to amend them. The Conrad-Gregg Commission, devised by the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, would make that up-or-down vote a super-majority in both the House and the Senate, which would actually make it harder to pass the recommendations than regular legislation. However, it would clearly outsource the functions of the legislative branch to an unelected committee, and critics fear that the Peterson noise machine would lead to major entitlement cutbacks rather than a balanced way of dealing with long-term deficits.

“I have heard, but have no idea if it is accurate, that the Peterson forces plan to spend $50 million to influence the vote on the Conrad-Gregg commission proposal, scheduled, I understand, for a vote on January 20,” said Altman, echoing a point made in the Fiscal Times article about an upcoming amendment for the commission that would be tacked on to the next vote raising the nation’s debt limit.

“My colleagues and I are engaged in a David and Goliath battle. We are up against a billionaire who made a fortune as a hedge fund manager, and is determined to use his fortune to influence public policy,” she added. “Though we do not have billions of dollars like the Peterson-Goliath on the other side, what we have is that our position is right.”

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research added in Politico’s Arena today, “Given Peterson’s longstanding agenda, this is like the American Rifle Association putting out the ‘Firearms Gazette’ or the Tobacco Industry publishing ‘Smoking Today.’ Turning over sections of the newspaper to advocacy organizations like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is apparently the Post’s latest desperate effort to stave off financial collapse.”

The Fiscal Times has hired board members such as Drew Altman of the Kaiser Family Foundation, Jodie Allen from the Pew Research Center and Robert Reischauer of the Urban Institute. A sample of some of their journalists, including former NYU journalism professor and health care blogger Merrill Goozner, can be found at their PR release.

Here is the letter to the Washington Post:

Washington Post
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Alexander:

We strongly protest the printing in the Washington Post of an article taken verbatim from an extremely biased source. The article, “Support grows for tackling nation’s debt” (page A-10, 12/31/09) appears to be a straightforward, objective news story, only opaquely revealing that the piece was “produced by the Fiscal Times.” Nowhere is it disclosed that the Fiscal Times is funded by an individual, Peter G. Peterson, who has spent the last thirty years in a crusade to undermine Social Security. Shame on the Post for presenting this propaganda as journalism.

Consistent with Mr. Peterson’s bias, the story glowingly reports increasing support for a deficit reduction commission, and fails ever to mention that over forty national organizations, including the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Common Cause, NAACP, National Organization for Women, SEIU, to name just a few, have been outspoken in their opposition to the proposal. Indeed, most readers would have little idea from this story that there was any opposition whatsoever to the proposed commission.

Even worse, the Post has apparently entered into a partnership with the Fiscal Times and plans to publish other articles from that source. We respectfully urge the Post to rescind the partnership. The Post should maintain its independence, reserve opinion pieces for the op-ed page, and not allow itself to be a propaganda arm for ideologues who use fiscal distress as a stalking horse to destroy social insurance.

Please note that we are submitting this letter to the Post’s editors for publication. Notwithstanding that, we respectfully request that you respond to us about this very serious matter. In that regard, we have provided the contact information for the first signatory at the end of the email. As you can see, the response among Social Security experts was swift and strong, notwithstanding that the piece appeared on New Year’s Eve. In the event that we receive more signatories over the weekend, as we expect we will, we will forward the additional names to you on Monday.

Nancy J. Altman, author, The Battle for Social Security (John Wiley & Sons)
Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
Robert H. Binstock, Professor of Aging, Health, and Society, Case Western Reserve University
Barbara Burt, Executive Director, Frances Perkins Center
Dale Coberly, co-author of the Northwest Plan to restore Social Security to balance
Nancy Dapper, Executive Director, Western & Central WA Chapter, Alzheimer’s Association
Stephen Gorin, Professor, Plymouth State University, Plymouth, NH
Roger Hickey, Co-Director, America’s Future
Eric Kingson, Professor, Syracuse University School of Social Work
Robert Kuttner, Founding Co-Editor, American Prospect
Theodore Marmor, Professor Emeritus, Yale University
Gerald A. McIntyre, Directing Attorney, National Senior Citizens Law Center
Maya Rockeymoore, President, Global Policy Solutions