Niall Ferguson’s Bad EducationAugust 29th, 2012 12:00 am Gene Lyons
During a presidential campaign, the temptation is always to melodrama. Having spent most of twenty years lamenting the vanishing professional ethics of the news media, I nevertheless found myself gobsmacked, as the Brits say, by Newsweek’s cover story by Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson entitled “Obama’s Gotta Go.”
Ferguson’s surely entitled to his opinions (although not his vote, as he’s a British subject, not an American citizen) but to paraphrase the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he’s not entitled to his own facts. Riddled with ludicrous errors and manifest deceptions, the article’s publication on the cover of a major news magazine at first struck me as ominous.
That Ferguson’s a professor made things worse. Academics theoretically hold themselves to more strenuous standards than journalists. I even found myself rummaging around in the University of Virginia honor code, where I went to school, for definitions of academic fraud.
And yes, it’s that bad. Vote for whomever you like. But if you make your choice based upon the following howler, then you’ve been had: “The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit,” Ferguson charged. “But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period.”
In fact, as New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman pointed out, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that Obamacare will actually reduce the yearly budget deficit by an estimated $210 billion over the decade. There’s a chart documenting that non-obscure fact on page two of the CBO report.
Krugman demanded a correction by Newsweek.
Instead, editor Tina Brown’s latest plaything allowed Ferguson to double-down. Rather than apologize, he posted an online rejoinder calling Krugman’s objection “truly feeble,” and boasting that he’d “very deliberately” written “‘the insurance coverage provisions of the ACA,’ not ‘the ACA.’”
In short, Ferguson very deliberately misled his readers to the tune of $1.4 trillion–considering only the debit half of Obamacare’s balance sheet, but not its revenues and savings. Then he falsely cited the CBO to cover his tracks.
Even his alibi quoted the CBO report out of context. Internet sleuths quickly caught him out. A flabbergasted John Cassidy summarized in the New Yorker: “[O]ne more time: The Oxford-trained, Harvard-employed, Newsweek contributor Niall Ferguson just edited the CBO report to change its meaning.”
To repeat, it’s perfectly legitimate to doubt the CBO’s conclusions or to argue that Obamacare will prove a budget buster. What’s not OK is falsifying quotes and misrepresenting data.