Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Does Robert Pear (or whomever edited his piece) have amnesia?

In this morning's "Robert Pear, or 'Robert Pear,' is useless addressing Medicare in this morning's Times," we noted U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (House Minority Leader's) press release on Medicare and promised to return to the topic of Rick Foster.

Who is Rick Foster and is there a reason that Robert Pear's not emphasizing him in this story? Is he part of some unreported or under-reported story?

Jonathan Alter in Newsweek had a piece entitled "The Smell of a Real Scandal" (March 29, 2004 issue):

Recall how that bill [Medicare] squeaked through Congress only after some heads were cracked. A retiring Republican from Michigan, Rep. Nick Smith, even charges that supporters of the bill offered him a bribe in the form of financial support for the political campaign of his son. The bill was priced at the time at $400 billion over 10 years. After the deed was done (the specifics of which amounted to a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical and health-care industries), it came out that the real cost will be at least $551.5 billion -- a difference of $150-plus billion that will translate into trillions over time. Now we learn that the Bush administration knew the truth beforehand and squelched it. Rick Foster, the chief actuary for Medicare, says he was told he would be fired if he passed along the higher estimates to Congress. "I'll fire him so fast his head will spin," Thomas Scully, then head of Medicare, said last June, according to an aide who has now gone public.
I knew Tom Scully a bit when he worked for Bush's father during the early 1990s. He is a whip-smart health-policy expert and Bush-family loyalist. He denies making the firing comment or saying that Foster was guilty of "insubordination" for wanting to tell Congress the truth. But Scully, who (natch) now works as a highly paid lobbyist on health issues, is stuck with the fact that Foster made clear efforts to be honest about the cost of this monstrosity.

The Times is unaware of this? They're unaware of Foster?

What about Laura Meckler's Associate Press article on Foster and Medicare (published June 25, 2003)? Apparently the Times never saw it. Which is really strange when you realize they posted the article on June 26, 2004. Very strange. Oh well, there are days when I give up before I read every article in the main section, so why should they be any different?

Guess they missed the AP story posted at CBS News on March 13, 2004 as well:

The Associated Press reported in June that Thomas Scully, who ran the Medicare agency until December, threatened to fire his top actuary, Rick Foster, if Foster released his calculations to Democrats who requested the analysis. Scully said his comments were "heated rhetoric in middle of the night." The matter has taken on a new life because the administration projected in the budget it submitted to Congress last month that the 10-year cost of the bill would be $534 billion, instead of the $395 billion estimate used in writing the legislation.
. . .
Scully left the administration in December to join the law firm Alston and Bird's health care practice. He received an ethics waiver to work on the Medicare bill last year, despite having contacts with prospective employers who would be deeply affected by it.

And when CBS Evening News did a story about this topic on March 15, 2004, the Times was apparently watching something else (a Simpsons' repeat?):

There are charges now the Bush administration is selling the program to the public in a very misleading way -- and misled Congress about the true cost of the program, reports CBS Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts. It passed by only a few votes -- and now there is evidence it took more than political armtwisting to get the President's prescription drug plan through. An e-mail -- obtained by CBS News -- appears to show the White House was anxious to hide ballooning cost estimates. Sent on behalf of former Medicare administrator Tom Scully, it warns the agency's chief actuary, Rick Foster to not tell Congress the price tag would be well above the White House's stated 400 billion. Foster is told "the consequences for insubordination are extremely severe"....

And just what in the world was Stefan Schumacher reading? Schumacher thought it was the Times. From The Daily Trojan "Bush Bullying in Character:"

What's especially disturbing in this instance is that, according to The New York Times, Richard Foster, Medicare's chief actuary, knew the price of the Medicare bill long before the vote but failed to inform members of Congress.
Why would he withhold such important information? According to The Times, Thomas Scully, then Medicare administrator, threatened to fire Foster if he didn't keep the figures secret. It wasn't until January, after the bill had passed, that a House Democratic health policy aide, Cybele Bjorklund, received an unsigned fax that showed the cost of the bill to be $551.5 billion over 10 years. Bjorklund had attempted to get this information earlier, but Scully told her, "If Rick Foster gives that to you I'll fire him so fast his head will spin."
Foster told The Times that he was threatened with severe consequences if he responded to requests from Congress for an estimate on the cost, and that "there was a pattern of withholding information for what I perceived to be political purposes."

It's all so confusing, isn't it? Robert Pear or "Robert Pear" somehow has never heard of Rick Foster. Strange.

But wait, one more thing. The Times did a story on this (March 18, 2004) entitled "Mysterious Fax Adds to Intrigue Over the Medicare Bill's Cost:"

Late one Friday afternoon in January, after the House of Representatives had adjourned for the week, Cybele Bjorklund, a House Democratic health policy aide, heard the buzz of the fax machine at her desk. Coming over the transom, with no hint of the sender, was a document she had been seeking for months: an estimate by Medicare's chief actuary showing the cost of prescription drug benefits for the elderly.
Dated June 11, 2003, the document put the cost at $551.5 billion over 10 years. It appeared to confirm what Ms. Bjorklund and her bosses on the House Ways and Means Committee had long suspected: the actuary, Richard S. Foster, had concluded the legislation would be far more expensive than Congress's $400 billion estimate -- and had kept quiet while lawmakers voted on the bill and President Bush signed it into law.
Ms. Bjorklund had been pressing Mr. Foster for his numbers since June. When he refused, telling her he could be fired, she said, she confronted his boss, Thomas A. Scully, then the Medicare administrator. "If Rick Foster gives that to you," Ms. Bjorklund remembered Mr. Scully telling her, "I'll fire him so fast his head will spin."
. . .
But Mr. Foster went public last week, and details of his struggle for independence within the Bush administration are now emerging, raising questions about whether the White House intentionally withheld crucial data from lawmakers.

Well, again, who can get through every story in the main section every day? It can be too frustrating so why should Robert Pear be responsible for reading this story and knowing about it?

I mean, it's not like he wrote it, right?

Oh wait.

The byline. Now that might cause a little embarrassment because the article is credited to Sheryl Gay Stolberg and . . . Robert Pear.

Well that doesn't mean anything, right? I mean, maybe they alternated in writing the piece? Maybe Pear took the end and Stolberg took the beginning and Pear really wasn't interested in reading Stolberg's part?

I don't know. I mean I'd hate to think, I'd really hate to think, this was an example of the Times failing to give the readers the perspective and information they needed. The Times would never do that, right?

There must be some other explanation. Robert Pear's story today (as opposed to the one he co-wrote on March 18, 2004) starts off:

The Bush administration offered a new estimate of the cost of the Medicare drug benefit on Tuesday, saying it would cost $720 billion in the next 10 years.
That is much more than the $400 billion Congress assumed when it passed legislation creating the benefit in late 2003.
But administration officials said the numbers were not comparable. The original estimate was for the years 2004 to 2013. The new estimate covers the period from 2006, when the drug benefit becomes available, to 2015.
The higher figure, which provides the first glimpse of the true cost of the drug benefit, could touch off a political uproar in Congress, where conservative Republicans were already expressing alarm about the costs of Medicare, including the drug benefit.

And it goes on and on with a kind of my-what-a-surprise attitude. Foster's never mentioned so maybe this all the result of funding that Viagra?

Are we really surprised that the Medicare numbers are turning out wrong? If we paid attention, we're not. If we paid attention prior to today's article, we're aware of what went down. If we're new to this story (or forgetful) and depending upon Robert Pear to give us basic info and perspective, we're out of luck.

Again, I'm sure Robert Pear or "Robert Pear" just didn't include it because he (or they) were unaware of it. That's got to be the only reason, right? I mean, the paper of record exists to connect the dots, right?

They wouldn't peddle something as a mystery when they know better, right?

I'd hate to suggest that they might because I'd hate to be dubbed one of those wacko liberals getting all partisan over the paper. And obviously, this criticism, were I to make it, would be motivated solely by partisanship. I mean, the Times doesn't make mistakes. And when they're criticized, it's by a partisan or "arm chair media critic" or something else. Because the Times doesn't make mistakes. Say it with me softly: the Times doesn't make mistakes.

Were I upset that the Times made no mention of a key element of this story (one well reported elsewhere as well as in the pages of the Times) that would just be me going all partisan on their rears, right?

The facts are above. Make up your own mind.

[Kelli e-mailed asking about "Robert Pear" in quotes. Tuesday night, I blogged about how some journalists have e-mailed this site to note that what they wrote and what got printed were two different things and only shared the same byline. In case Pear was heavily edited, I've typed: Robert Pear or "Robert Pear."]