On March 3, 2014 House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released a report that was essentially an extensive literature survey on the efficacy of federal anti-poverty programs. The report has stimulated discussion, both favorable and unfavorable, as it should and as was intended.
Yesterday I logged on to Facebook to find a post from my friend and former colleague Dr. Jeffrey Brown, saying that a reporter had called him to see whether Congressman Paul Ryan had quoted his research accurately; Dr. Brown said he had. Dr. Brown’s post was suggestive that a reporter was working on an article exploring the possibility of inaccurate citation of academic research. Sure enough, yesterday there appeared in the Fiscal Times an article sensationally titled, “Economists Say Paul Ryan Misrepresented Their Research.”
Remarkably, one of the economists so cited was Dr. Brown, who had actually told the reporter that Ryan had quoted his research accurately. This prompted Dr. Brown to submit this comment to the online version of the Fiscal Times article:
Speaking of “misrepresentation,” I take issue with your portrayal of my email communication to you as suggesting that Congressman Ryan incorrectly cited my work with Amy Finkelstein of MIT. You provided me the quote from his report and asked me if it was accurate, noting that another academic suggested it may not be. My exact response to you was: “That quote is an accurate representation of our work. My only caveat would be that although Medicaid has this effect, there may also be other factors that would continue to limit the size of the private market even if Medicaid was reformed.” The caveat was provided to help you – as the reporter – to understand the context for the citation in case you wanted to explore the policy implications of our work further and to help you understand why another academic might have felt the quote was inaccurate. But I did not suggest nor do I hold the view that Congressman Ryan “ignored” the caveat, as implied by your writing. Nor, as implied by the title of your piece, do I believe Congressman Ryan “misrepresented” my research. His citation was appropriate. Obviously, the interactions of Medicaid and long-term care are complex, and a full discussion would go far beyond the small summary they provided. But that is true of any summary - indeed, even our own abstract of the paper does not provide that caveat due to word count constraints. In short, I do NOT believe that my work was misrepresented in the Ryan document. Rather, I believe my email was misrepresented in your article."
Immediately after the piece appeared, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published a blog post entitled “Flimflam, the Next Generation,” in which Krugman stated that Ryan’s “artful misrepresentation” of scholar papers was drawing “angry protests from the authors.” Krugman’s source for this charge is the Fiscal Times article. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times also published a column alleging that “scholars” termed the Ryan report a “mess” in which their work was “misrepresented,” also citing the Fiscal Times article as his source. If one does a Google search for “Paul Ryan poverty report,” the first link that comes up is a Daily Kos piece with a photo of Paul Ryan doctored to show him sporting a Pinocchio nose; its source regarding this alleged deceit is, again, the same Fiscal Times article.
None of these pieces acknowledge that the Fiscal Times mischaracterized Dr. Brown’s view. Neither Krugman nor Hiltzik mentions Brown, while the Daily Kos piece states baldly that Ryan “misrepresents a study by Jeffrey Brown and Amy Finkelstein.” The appearance of these and other columns redirected the conversation from the efficacy of federal anti-poverty programs to the truthfulness of Congressman Ryan. The original reporter must have understood that his article would have this effect.
The Fiscal Times article mentions five experts. One of them, Jeffrey Brown, has asserted that Ryan quoted his research accurately. A second, Amy Finkelstein, is mentioned but offered no opinions in the article. That leaves but three scholars mentioned in the piece – Jane Waldfogel, Chris Wimer, and Barbara Wolfe – who criticize how their research is cited. For perspective, consider that the Ryan report has 683 footnotes citing an untold number of experts. It is virtually inevitable that out of this vast number there would be a few who disagree with Ryan’s policy conclusions or take issue with how their work is cited, while there could be hundreds who believe Ryan encapsulated their research well. In any event, the scholars cited in the Fiscal Times article fall short of a significant or even newsworthy number, and the piece misrepresented the position of at least one of those few.
Not only Congressman Ryan, but the public deserves better than this. There will always be people who when they see a document reflecting an opposing policy viewpoint, make a priority of undermining its perceived legitimacy. This behavior, however, is usually associated with opposition political research, and is not expected of professional journalism.
The Fiscal Times online article now contains a belated addition clarifying that Dr. Brown did not allege misrepresentation after all; it was added only after significant damage to the tenor of the public discussion of the Ryan report.
Charles Blahous is a senior research fellow for the Mercatus Center, a research fellow for the Hoover Institution, a public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, and a contributor to e21.