Why Does the NYT Refrain from Explaining the Predatory Motives of a Billionaire-Backed Think Tank?


One of the all-time greatest hits of right-wing pundits is the insistence on a “liberal bias” in the media. Journalist and historian Eric Alterman exposed this myth in his 2003 book, What Liberal Media? yet it persists, often resulting in mainstream media outlets caving to a strategy known as “working the refs,” in which shrill cries of bias cause journalists and pundits to privilege right-leaning perspectives so they won’t be accused.

A disturbing example of this trend haunts the pages of the New York Times, in which the pernicious work of the decidedly right-wing Peter G. Peterson Institute is treated as ideologically unbiased while that of other organizations across the spectrum are consistently mentioned along with an ideological tag; often one designed to misguide readers on the actual nature of the organization’s agenda.

Let’s take a tour of the NYT archives.

When the Koch-backed Cato Institute is mentioned, the label “libertarian” tends to appear. An article about Ben Bernanke’s stance on China’s currency undervaluation, for example, tells us that “speakers at a conference in Washington, organized by the libertarian Cato Insitute warned that the Fed’s monetary policy could lead to asset-price bubbles….” The ideological tag alerts the reader to take the assertion with a grain of salt. The obviously right-wing Heritage Foundation is usually tag-less and never characterized as “right-leaning,” but occasionally the term “conservative” will appear when it is mentioned.

The Obama-supporting Center for American Progress is alternatively described as “liberal” or “center left” as in this article: “The center-left Center for American Progress opened in 2003 when the Democrats were in political exile.” The Institute for Policy Studies is called a “left-leaning think tank in Washington.” (AlterNet, on the rare occasion it is mentioned, is described as a “left-leaning news site.”)

Third Way, a big money front group whose governing board is totally dominated by Wall Street financiers, is absurdly characterized as a “moderately left-wing think tank,” when in fact, as Bill Black has pointed out, it is dedicated to a right-wing agenda of shredding the social safety net and imposing self-destructive austerity on America.

Which brings us to the case of the Peter G. Peterson Institute, which, according to SourceWatch, is "founded, chaired, and funded" by Pete Peterson, a conservative Republican billionaire who made his money as a Wall Street hedge fund manager and served as secretary of commerce under President Richard Nixon. He has devoted himself and his billions to promoting deficit hysteria and convincing the public that programs like Social Security and Medicare will destroy the economy. His economic policies come from the far right and he has been dedicated to producing propaganda masquerading as serious research. He has a huge and well-paid staff (and one of them will be contacting me after the publication of this article attempting to brow-beat me into telling lies about their boss).

The mythology promoted by Peterson has done incalculable harm to America. His belief in the absurd efficient market theory, in which financial markets magically regulate themselves, has helped produce widespread and continuing fraud epidemics. He has consistently pushed austerity (based, as we now know, on the discredited research of Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff), which has led to job loss, economic stagnation and untold misery for millions. Austerity-champion Carmen Reinhart is, incidentally, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute.

Yet something interesting happens when you type "Peterson Institute” into the New York Times online archives. When you see a descriptor, it’s one of praise – Adam Davidson of the NYT Magazine, always eager to show off his affection for economic quacks, refers to the Peterson Institute as a “prominent Washington policy group.” The fact that the Peterson Institute never receives an ideogical tag conveys that its positions are neutral, and therefore highly credible.

Which is absolute bunk.

On Saturday, May 25, the NYT ran a front-page story purporting to examine a new trend in Chinese economic policy, a topic of great importance to readers. Quotations in the article come from bank officials, a Chinese government website, politicians, and exactly one think tank representative, Nicholas R. Lardy, “a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an authority on the Chinese economy.” The reader is not informed that the positions of the Peterson Institute will tend to include free market fundamentalist economic theories that focus on discrediting economic stimulus, driving down wages and curbing regulation. All of these positions appear in the article, without any counterweight.

For what many people still consider the paper of record, this kind of reporting merely muddles the record and allows propaganda to disguise itself as truth.

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