Last week, the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine worked together to publish a package in The Nation and a new online wiki resource on Pete Peterson and the Campaign to Fix the Debt, an entity we consider an "astroturf supergroup" with a huge budget working hard to create the fantasy that Americans care more about national debt and deficits than jobs and the economy. Fix the Debt is currently exploiting the "sequester" debate in Congress to encourage steep cuts to incredibly popular social programs like Medicare and Social Security.
After the release, Fix the Debt's press person called to confront me about what he said were "false things" in our exposé.
"If you have corrections, I am all ears," I said. Then such an odd (and amusing) conversation took place it struck me as worth writing up as an object lesson in how these big-buck, PR spin-machines operate.
Pete Peterson Who?
Jon Romano, Fix the Debt's Vice President of Communications, started by accusing me of inaccurately making Pete Peterson a focus of our report.
Why should we not focus on the Wall Street billionaire who has spent $500 million on his mission to secure cuts in Social Security and Medicare?
"I have never met Pete Peterson -- he doesn't fund us," says Romano.
So when the Washington Post interviewed Peterson and noted that he gave Fix the Debt $5 million that was incorrect?
The facts are that Fix the Debt was launched on the Peter G. Peterson Foundation website; Peterson was at the National Press Club launch of Fix the Debt; and Peterson sits on the board and funds Fix the Debt's parent organization (where Fix the Debt offices are located), the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is a project of the New America Foundation.
After launching as a project of CRFB in July 2012, in October Fix the Debt newly incorporated in Delaware. The new incorporation could, in essence, erase the Peterson seed money, allowing them to further distance themselves from the controversial billionaire.
More on Funding
Romano also disputed our report that the organization was targeting a $60 million budget. "Where did you get that number -- from the Huffington Post?" he sniffed.
No, we got it from your documents. Still disputed. Distributed nationwide. What do you have "eyes in the sky?" says Romano. On your letterhead. Still disputed. Look, I said, the figure is from the Fix the Debt CEO Talking Points.
The upshot? Romano says they have only raised $40 million to date. Duly noted.
I Heart Bob Borosage; I Heart Social Security
Romano also disputed our statement that the group was targeting Social Security for cuts. "We don't have a plan on Social Security," he said over and over. "I worked for Bob Borosage ... it's not likely that I would work for an organization to dismantle those programs," Romano says.
Simpson and Bowles are your founders and you don't have a plan on Social Security? Really? For the record?
No, "we just want a deal," says Romano.
There is no plan but there is a scorecard on the non-plan? The same day Romano called us, February 22, his press team issued a cookie-cutter "scorecard" in multiple states demanding that "policymakers must enact a budget deal that fully offsets the sequester permanently with more targeted measures primarily focused on health and retirement programs," (emphasis ours) which plainly includes Social Security even though Fix the Debt prefers the euphemism "entitlement reform."
The facts are that Fix the Debt embraces the Simpson-Bowles $4 trillion austerity package as a starting point for "a deal." Simpson-Bowles makes damaging cuts to Social Security even though the program does not add a dime to the federal deficit and is fully solvent for at least two more decades. More relevant than Romano's work history is the history of the person running the show. Fix the Debt leader Maya McGuineas once championed the privatization of Social Security.
The Press Is Unreliable; But a Reliable Tool for Getting a Message Out
At this point, I am getting a bit irritated. "What other problems do you have with our release," I ask?
Back to Pete Peterson. "It's not true," says Romano again. So what about what was published by the Washington Post? Are you going to get a correction from the Post? "What type of organization quotes from the press?" demands Romano.
"I am not sure why you have a press shop if you don't think that relying on the press is a valuable enterprise," say I.
"I think it is a reliable enterprise for getting your message out," admits the spinmeister.
Astroturf vs. Grassroots?
The conversation went down hill from there I am sorry to say.
"If you think you are a journalist you have an obligation to check the facts," snaps Romano.
"If you think you are telling the truth," I snap back, before asking him how old he was (sorry about that, Jon).
We are not astroturf, those state chapters have real people, says Romano -- plus we have 344,000 petition signers.
"So how much did you pay Change.org for those petition names?" I ask following up on a rumor that we had not included in our piece. (Change.org generally charges $1.50 to $2 per email address to run a petition on its website, which can add up to a pretty penny -- even if it were a buck a name -- for a couple hundred thousand names.)
"That's a lie too," says Romano, adding that's not how it works.
So, for the record, you gave no money to Change.org?
"I didn't say that," says Romano, confirming the rumor that they paid for at least part of their signatures, which fell far below their 10 million target.
On the Death of Facts
For PR flacks like Romano whose job is spin and smoke and mirrors, our repeated requests for documents supporting his contentions gives offense.
"I thought this would be a normal conversation," he complains when I press for material to back up his claims. He doesn't seem to understand that a group with a website called PRWatch may not consider PR spokespeople a reliable source of information. CMD does not believe, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, that the press should be stenographers of what spokespeople assert despite evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, few major news outlets in America consistently fact check; The Nation magazine and CMD are two that do. We never issue a report unless it is backed up by original source material and other reliable information, and so we rarely quote what a PR rep says versus documenting what an organization has actually done. Which is not to say we don't sometimes make mistakes.
Arguing that the group was not really a grassroots effort, we reported that Fix the Debt was "deploying" staff to 23 states, but Romano says they already have staff in all these states. Point to Romano. But Romano denies that Fix the Debt has used four PR firms as was reported more than once in the industry journal PR Week. Given that Fix the Debt appears to be hiring PR firms in many states, the point is ours I think.
Romano promised to release the organization's annual tax form to be filed with the IRS, which is unlikely to reveal its donors and prove his claims, so we are not holding our breath.
UPDATE AT 8:00 P.M. -- An astute reader points out that Romano told the Huffington Post in December 2012 that Peterson had given Fix the Debt "millions" -- upping the Pinocchio count substantially.