How Planet Money, This American Life and NPR Have Become Key Players in the Bankers’ Propaganda War on What's Left of Our Social Contract

This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.

Just over a week ago,  my Twitter feed started getting bombarded with links to the latest — and quite possibly the scummiest — Planet Money/This American Life propaganda piece on NPR for the financial industry, disguised as highbrow progressive journalism.

The piece was called "Unfit For Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America" and it essentially argued — using wildly flawed research and straight-up lies — that our Social Security program is burdened by a glut of freeloader disability queens, faking their disabilities in order to live high on the Social Security disability insurance hog.

Why would NPR run such a flawed, biased story? The answer takes us right to the heart of Wall Street’s plans to privatize government benefits, which Wall Street bond holders want to slash for their own profits. This battle pits powerful Wall Street interests and their media and political lackeys on the one side, versus an overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans and Democrats both — on the other. In the middle stands a radio piece from a trusted source, NPR/This American Life/Planet Money, telling its progressive, educated audience that there is in fact a problem with Social Security, and that problem is a bunch of human parasites faking disability to suckle from the Social Security teat.

It’s the sort of rancid old 1930s anti-New Deal propaganda that the American Liberty League or NAM or the Chamber of Commerce used to puke out on a regular basis. But this is 2013, meaning this time around, the battleground is on the putative left, pitting the Democratic Party leaders including Obama against the people who voted for him, and who have nowhere else to turn. On the Democratic Party’s side: their funders on Wall Street, and their neoliberal propagandists in pundit-land and in universities. The key isn’t winning over right-wing conservatives, but rather affluent progressives — i.e., Planet Money's and NPR’s audience. If they can flip that demographic, Social Security is privatized toast.

The good thing is that the piece was such obvious crap, so intellectually flawed and propaganda-soaked, that Ira Glass and the This American Life/Planet Money/NPR people were forced to respond to their critics. The downside is that the critics were far too respectful, basing their criticism on factual flaws rather than on the corruption that made the flawed reporting not just possible, but inevitable.

Here's a U Illinois professor respectfully critiquing the piece on the Huffington Post:

Ms. Joffe-Walt, who is neither an economist nor a specialist on disability, is making a claim that in an economics class would be red penciled with the corrective... 

The logical error in her reporting comes from simply assuming that the rising number of people on disability is the result of the collusion between poor unemployed people and cash-strapped states. But the reality may be closer to the fact that the Baby Boomer generation, as it ages, becomes more and more subject to impairments that lead to disabilities. Since a third of people with disabilities are those with mental disorders, it is also no surprise that the dramatic rise in diagnoses of depression, OCD, and autism in the same period have had an impact on these statistics.

In These Times and the great Dean Baker also went after the Planet Money piece with padded kid gloves; perhaps they were thrown off by the fatal assumption that Planet Money and NPR are on the same progressive team as they.

Only Media Matters offered something like a comprehensive critique of the piece, debunking the Planet Money PR falsehoodsone by one.

Not surprisingly, the right-wing blogosphere went ga-ga over Planet Money’s attack on what we may as well call "disability queens": Breitbart, that annoying mannequin-head from theNational ReviewFox Nation, and Drudge, to name a few. To welfare-bashers and wingers, Planet Money’s hit piece on these manufactured disability queens was a fine example of real investigative journalism.

As we reported last year at our SHAME Project and in my piece for the NSFWCORP, Planet Money has a serious conflict-of-interest problem when it reports on anything involving the banking sector. Planet Money’s sole sponsor, as of late last year, is Ally Bank (formerly GMAC), one of the world’s most toxic subprime lenders. Ally/GMAC preyed on Americans on the upside, then plundered taxpayers for over $17 billion in TARP bailout funds when their fraud schemes came crashing down. As we showed, the disturbing overlap between GMAC’s lobbying efforts against bank regulation bills, and Planet Money programs attacking that legislation and its promoters, means that Planet Money has essentially doubled as a sophisticated PR vessel targeting a key audience unaware of the Planet Money/NPR financial arrangement with the banking industry.

The corrupt arrangement caught the attention of the New York ObserverFairness and Accuracy in Media, and others. Planet Money, This American Life and NPR have all been party to journalistic fraud against their audience, and they’re laughing all the way to the bailed-out bank with the help of your NPR donation.

When you know that Planet Money’s sole sponsor is a predatory lender, this hit-piece on Social Security "disability queens" makes an appalling sort of sense. Social Security is actually a fully funded and well-managed program. That’s precisely why Wall Street has been trying to grab it for years. When furious NPR viewers objected to seeing their donations funding anti-Social Security propaganda, Ira Glass felt compelled to issue this statementstanding by the reporting: "We know of no factual errors. We stand by the story."

Yet, as a Wired reporter pointed out, Planet Money did alter the online version of the show after listeners raised a fuss. NPR finally admitted that the text had been altered, lamely explaining that "sentences were changed for clarity after publication."

This is the sort of thing you expect from a Murdoch operation, not from NPR or This American Life. But why would any honorable NPR staffers go along with this sleazy project? Well, to put it bluntly, the staff of Planet Money are pretty sleazy themselves. Here’s a brief summary of their sordid publication histories:

  • In 2010, Chana Joffe-Walt co-authored with Adam Davidson an appalling piece of "blame-the Greeks" propaganda that could have been written by a giant bond fund. (Oddly enough, half the piece takes place in the offices of PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund.) Their piece blames Greece’s debt problems squarely on the bad big-spending Greek government and Greek public-sector workers like teachers. And, while vilifying teachers, Joffe-Walt and Davidson portray bond magnates as helpless well-meaning victims. Here’s a part of the transcript:
ADAM DAVIDSON: Chana, I think this is where I should come in, because I actually do know where the money came from. I know where Greece got that money and it wasn't from heaven. It was from Newport Beach... PIMCO decided, hey, let's take a second look at Greece. Let's start lending them money. Let's buy a bunch of their bonds. And PIMCO was not the only one. 

Mr. SCOTT MATHER (PIMCO): And the market was basically giving Greece the benefit of the doubt, because they were a eurozone member, part of the club. 

DAVIDSON: Sure, Greece's governments were famous for their long history of lousy financial management. But now they promised to act like grownups, to be responsible… And Scott figured even if Greece did screw up, the richer countries would step in and help them out. 

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: That's a nice crystal ball. 

DAVIDSON: ..Right. So PIMCO starts lending the country money at rates closer to what those Germans and Finns are paying. And that makes all loans in Greece cheaper, not just government loans. And this goes on for nearly a decade. 

JOFFE-WALT: And so back in Greece, 2009, there's a new government that comes into power and the new government makes a surprise announcement. They say, remember how the previous guys said that our deficit was six percent? It's actually twice that. 

DAVIDSON: The traders at PIMCO, like bond traders all over the world, were shocked. They were furious.

Yes, they were shocked! Shocked I tell ya! They had no idea in 2009 such a thing was possible — just as shocked as they were the year before, in 2008, when they overleveraged and destroyed the entire global financial system.

Davidson and Joffe-Walt continue on with their PIMCO propaganda piece:

DAVIDSON: This is Mohamed El-Erian. He is the CEO of PIMCO. And he says when they told Greece no more loans, we're not buying anymore of your bonds, the Greek government asked them to reconsider. 

Dr. El-ERIAN: The Greek government came with lots of offerings. 

DAVIDSON: Did they come to you directly? 

Dr. El-ERIAN: They did come to us directly, via our offices in Germany and London. And we said thank you, but no thank you. 

DAVIDSON: Not just PIMCO, most bond buyers all over the world were saying: No, Greece. We won't lend you money. We won't buy your bonds. The governments of Europe though, said okay, Greece. We'll bail you out but only if you stop paying all those teachers, and postal workers, and lake dryer-uppers all that money.

I have to stop here and repeat what Adam Davidson just said there, defending PIMCO against "teachers, and postal workers, and lake dryer-uppers." So we’re now to lump together teachers, postal workers and "lake-dryer-uppers." That’s what an education from the University of Chicago will get you.

Back to the Davidson & Joffe-Walt PIMCO show:

JOFFE-WALT: Which pretty much brings us up to date, the Greek people are really mad. 

(Soundclip of chanting protestors) 

DAVIDSON: And the guys at PIMCO understand that. The Greek government made some bad choices and now the Greek citizens are being asked to pay for them, with their salaries and their pensions. And Scott Mather says it's not just Greece. 

Mr. MATHER: Most of the developed world is screwed. So the rich world has continued to spend more than they’ve made for decades. To us, the most startling thing is this disconnect where people think there is some easier way out. There is no easy way out. 

JOFFE-WALT: Greece may be one of the worst examples, but almost every developed country - including the U.S... 

DAVIDSON: Especially, Chana, the U.S. 

JOFFE-WALT: Especially the U.S., every country has been borrowing more than they can pay back without making difficult choices; without raising taxes or spending less.

So the mystery of Chana Joffe-Walt’s ideological baggage is solved: She’s an austerity-theorist, just like her boss Adam Davidson and just like their show’s sole sponsor, Ally Bank (which just happened to take over $17 billion in taxpayer bailout money). No blame from Chana Joffe-Walt for the financial industry, despite all the illegal, fraudulent, corrupt things they’ve been caught doing over and over and over to profit off debt. No, Chana believes it’s all the teachers, postal workers, and lake-dryer-uppers’ fault. She also wants you to know that without "difficult" choices, such as robbing your pensions and reducing your income, America will turn into Greece, that terrible place, full of lake-dryer-uppers.

Chana Joffe-Walt’s job, selling bank propaganda to ostensibly progressive media, seems to run in her family. Chana’s brother, Benjamin Joffe-Walt, works in the heart of the Mega-Bank propaganda business, as a Washington DC-based "Strategic Communications & Public Relations Specialist" currently heading’s public relations.

Benjamin is using exactly the same way his sister is using NPR: exploiting a trusted source to churn out corporate PR. used to be one of the most successful progressive grassroots organizing outfits, a site for online petitions that translate into political action. Then late last year, was furtively taken over by the PR industry, monetizing the credibility had built up and making it available to front-groups, the public relations industry and advertisers.

Last year, Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post exposed internal memos laying out the group’s transformation into a fake-progressive front:, the online social movement company founded on progressive values, has decided to change its advertising policy to allow for corporate advertising, Republican Party solicitations, astroturf campaigns, anti-abortion or anti-union ads and other controversial sponsorships, according to internal company documents.

Like his sister Chana Joffe-Walt, Benjamin Joffe-Walt used to call himself a journalist. Then he filed for The Guardian a wildly false story about a Chinese pro-democracy dissident, a story which a Guardian editor said "threatened the credibility of the Guardian’s reporting in China." Benjamin reported seeing Chinese dissident Lu Banglie beaten by Chinese authorities so badly that "his eye [lay] out of his socket" and "the ligaments in his neck were broken." So the Guardian arranged an independent medical examination for Lu Banglie, and, according to the Independent...

It soon emerged there was..."a huge disparity" between the report and reality. Lu Banglie's neck was not broken, nor had his eye come out of its socket. Indeed, just two days after publishing the tale of his apparent demise, The Guardian reported that Lu Banglie was alive and determined to continue his pro-democracy activities. A subsequent medical examination, arranged by the newspaper, revealed that he had "no serious injuries". Ian Mayes reported that, among Guardian readers, "Relief that Lu Banglie had survived was mixed with serious concern about grave flaws in the correspondent's report."

Today, Chana Joffe-Walt’s brother works for a fake-progressive front group and his job is "placement" in major media. From his bio:

He leads a global team of communications specialists presenting to a wide range of audiences. Prominent placements have included TIME, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Bloomberg, Fortune, Businessweek, CNN, The Daily Show, Ellen...."

In other words, Joffe-Walt’s brother’s job is to convince media outlets to run stories he’s pushing for. This is interesting because both brother and sister work for major ostensibly-progressive outfits, both of which are now being exploited as message-dumps for Wall Street. This is, at the very least, an interesting coincidence. Which brings me to the last interesting thing I noticed: The Planet Money/This American Life/NPR hit-piece on Social Security lists as its sponsor the Lincoln Financial Group.

That’s interesting because the Lincoln Financial Group, like Ally Bank/GMAC, took bailout money through a sneaky way: It bought a collapsed thrift, Newton County Loan and Savings, for pennies on the dollar, then reclassified itself as a banking institution, and voila! Lincoln qualified for nearly 1 billion dollars in taxpayer TARP funds! The TARP inspector general, Neil Barofsky, singled out Lincoln for criticism:

In a December report, Barofsky showed how insurance giants Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. and Lincoln National Corp. bought tiny thrifts -- one with just $7 million in assets -- to qualify for the TARP Capital Protection Program, which is designed to encourage bank lending. Hartford and Lincoln used the more than $4.3 billion in TARP funds they received almost entirely to finance insurance operations, according to the report. "Treasury didn’t have to approve that," Barofsky says.

Lincoln Financial Group — a sponsor of the Planet Money hit piece on Social Security disability — is listed as one of the largest finance-insurance companies in America, with over $141 billion in assets (the holding company’s name is Lincoln National Group, but the public name is "Lincoln Financial Group"). One of its subsidiaries, Lincoln Financial Media, owns some 14 radio stations across America. The Philadelphia Eagles play at Lincoln Financial Field.

Among the products that Lincoln Financial Group sells is, you guessed it, disability insurance.

So unless it’s a complete coincidence that Lincoln Financial’s ads keep popping up as the Planet Money sponsor for the show about disability queens, it looks like once again, Planet Money, This American Life and NPR have the same "failure to communicate their conflict-of-interest and media corruption" problem that we wrote about last summer. They’ve done nothing to address the corruption in their editorial process. No one is holding Planet Money, This American Life or NPR accountable for clear conflict-of-interest.

But perhaps NPR doesn’t give a shit. In their corporate sponsors page, NPR openly boasts that paying NPR to read your company’s name has a "halo effect" —that is, having a harmless squeaky progressive-sounding NPR voice reading out your company’s name essentially helps to whitewash the corporate sponsor’s brand reputation. That can really come in handy if you’re one of the banks that pocketed billions in taxpayer money and now you’re lobbying to cut Social Security benefits:

Sponsorships: Halo Effect Corporate sponsors are interested in exposure to the well-educated, relatively affluent NPR audience (both on-air and online), which can be difficult to reach through other media. Selective sponsors also value association with the NPR brand. Messages acknowledging our sponsors are presented on-air in short announcements, and are presented visually and in audio on and other digital services. Over the last ten years, NPR's sponsorship program has enjoyed strong growth.

NPR's digital sponsorship revenue continues to grow in spite of the weakened advertising and sponsorship market.

sponsors tend to stick with NPR as they find value in the "halo effect" of a positive association with the NPR brand.

So, as the financial lobby and the DC political class close in for the kill on your Social Security, you should be aware that Planet Money, This American Life and NPR are key players on the left flank of the bankers’ propaganda war. If you’re one of their listeners or donors, you’re a target. Welcome to what passes for the "liberal" media.


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