A horrible front-page report by the Post!

TUESDAY, AUGUST 27, 2013

As we should have stated: Yesterday, we praised the Washington Post for a front-page report from Sunday’s hard-copy paper. To read that post, click this.

We should have noted the truly horrible front-page report which ran directly above it, right at the top of the Sunday Post’s front page.

Jonathan Chait called this other report “one of the weirdest, and most weirdly biased, news articles I’ve ever read in my life.” We can’t disagree with that assessment, and the report concerned a topic which lies at the center of the national discourse.

Such as it is.

David Fahrenthold’s hopeless report concerns the size of the federal government. Hopelessly, Fahrenthold started like this. We’ll assume his editor made him, perhaps at the point of a gun:
FAHRENTHOLD (8/25/13): After 2 1/2 years of budget battles, this is what the federal government looks like now:

It is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion.

That figure is down from 2010—the year that worries about government spending helped bring on a tea party uprising, a Republican takeover in the House and then a series of ulcer-causing showdowns in Congress.

But it is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Or, as Kurtz says in The Heart of Darkness, “The horror! The horror.”

What is so bad about that opening? For starters, Fahrenthold hasn’t adjusted those figures for inflation—and yes, that makes a significant difference, even over just a few years.

To let Chait explain this problem, click here. For Kevin Drum’s sense of the horror, click this—but this is his basic nugget:

“This is just flatly deceptive. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, federal spending has declined by 8 percent since 2010. In current dollars, it's fallen from $11,800 to $10,900 per person.”

In that second nugget, Drum has adjusted for inflation and for population growth. Unless you’re trying to create confusion, you can’t compare dollar figures across spans of time without making some basic adjustments.

Fahrenthold understands that, of course. After all, he’s Harvard ’00—and starting in paragraph 16, he makes a few asides about what those figures look like if you adjust for inflation. But that is deep inside the paper. His opening passages, atop the front page, are filled with snark and are in fact “flatly deceptive.”

The second part of his opening passage is horrible too. In this passage, Fahrenthold says he has another way to measure the size of the government:
FAHRENTHOLD (continuing directly): Measured another way - not in dollars, but in people—the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That's more than the populations of 24 states.

Back in 2010, it had 4.3 million employees. More than the populations of 24 states.
The twin gods, Snark and Snide, roared with delight at this point! As Chait notes, this means that the federal workforce has declined by almost 5 percent over three years. Rather than state it that way, Fahrenthold finds a way to make it sound like nothing has changed.

(All through the report, Fahrenthold compares the size of the workforce to the size of various states. This is a type of comparison sure to provide much more confusion than light.)

This is terrible work. It sat at the top of page one in the Sunday Washington Post, creating tons of confusion. A person could spend several days going over the nonsense found in this mess.

Instead, let’s offer an overview:

For starters, when your press corps behaves this way, you don’t have a press corps. Everyone, including Fahrenthold, knows how stupid that opening is.

Presumably, there’s a purpose to this, a hidden purpose within the minds of players at the Post.

Second point: The counterpart to this open deception is the refusal to report certain types of basic facts. For years, the press corps has refused to report and analyze data like these, as we’ve repeatedly noted:
Health care spending, per person, 2011:
United States: $8508
France: $4118
United Kingdom: $3405
Finland: $3374
Everyone knows what those figures mean. When the press corps refuses for years to discuss them, a scam of some kind is being perpetrated.

Third point: So far, several dogs have failed to bark about this front-page Post report. At some point, the Big Dogs have to bark, or we don’t have an opposition.

Maybe on Friday! It’s time to speak up and name names, politely of course.

Do we have a public discussion at all? To tell you the truth, we do not! Not does the official “liberal world” have a whole lot to say about that.

12 comments:

  1. Great post.

    My own sense is they're getting ready to ramp up the "entitlement reform" media machine again, so they have to start screeching incoherently about spending. They'll take it up to full screech after Labor Day. They know no one pays attention to anything in August.

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  2. Bob,
    What are these people "taught" in Journo. school vs. what are they "taught" by their editors?
    Or is it all about the Benjamins?

    Serious question.

    LG

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  3. Farenthold was trying to demonstrate that the federal budget is very large. As Kevin Drum and Bob Somerby pointed out, his choice of statistics did not support his point.

    However, his point could have been shown to be correct by going back a few more years. Federal outlays in 2012 were almost double those in 2000, even though the war in Iraq wound down and the recession is over.

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    1. David, the federal budget is very large because our country is very large and has a lot of people in it. Whether it is larger than it ought to be is an entirely different question.

      When you compare Federal outlays in 2012 to those in 2000, you need to ask yourself, what is different in 2012 compared to 2000. The Iraq war may have been over but Afghanistan was not. The recession may have been over for bankers and businesses but not for the average worker, many of whom are still unemployed. New claims for unemployment only started trending down this year. The number of older people applying for social security increases every year because the baby boomers are now reaching retirement age. The number of people receiving government services of various kinds increases every year because the population increases. The costs of climate-related disasters has increased dramatically since 2000. Bush's drug plan was put into effect, a new entitlement. Lots of things besides wars drive these sorts of comparisons.

      If you are concerned about government spending, you should focus on which programs you would consider unnecessary and what you would cut. Current government spending reflects the will of the people expressed via their elected representatives. Things like recessions affect revenues which need to be compared against spending to determine the true impact.

      I could say that I am a prudent person because my household spending is only $40,000 per hear. However, if my income were only $30,000, how prudent would I be? That's why this kind of analysis is crap and is clearly intended only to make people anxious about government spending without placing that spending into any kind of context so that people could understand the real financial shape the country is in.

      Bob's point is that you shouldn't manipulate statistics to make ANY point, because that is not news reporting and is inconsistent with journalistic standards and ethics. The point isn't that this guy didn't choose the right statistics to support his point -- it is that he manipulated statistics to make a propagandistic point in service of some agenda. That just isn't news reporting.

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    2. Don't forgot the huge security state apparatus after 911 (Orwell's prophecy heading toward fulfillment).

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  4. It could have been worse. Mr. Farenthold could have included in his report a flawed quote pieced together from a long blathering ramble by some irrelevant figure, such as a politician's wife.

    Thank god he merely lied with statistics and stopped there. Some journalists don't know where to draw the line.

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  5. OMB (We've changed out headline)

    Let's walk backwards through Somerbyland.

    3) Big dogs not barking.

    Unfortunately, the tiny terrier in Somerby was busy licking the hand of the Post for doing the right thing by his pals, the maligned Clintons, so he missed this story until some presumably smaller canines started yapping. So he hits Krugman for writing about something that Bob ignored yesterday as well.

    BUT WAIT, (as they say on TV) THERE'S MORE. From the now barking Bob himself:

    "At some point, the Big Dogs have to bark, or we don’t have an opposition.

    Now, dear readers, it seems Somerby is suggesting that the role of the press is to fight itself. Krugman doesn't have the pit bull juevos to fulfill his role as opposition leader to the dastadly Fahrenthold forces at the Post.

    2) Disappeared facts

    Bob has picked his favorite "disappeared" fact to dwell on here.. Of course Fahrenthold was not reporting on federal spending in the USA compared to other countries, but health care spending by the Feds certainly could have been given scrutiny. If I were to bitch like Bob here, I would suggest Fahrenthold could have avoided looking at rural airports as wasteful spending and examined the federal subsidies to failed private insitutions of higher education. How many reporters at the Washington Post, for example, which loses money, are subsidized by revenues to Kaplan Education which makes profits largely because taxpayers are stuck with defaulted student loans? Talk about your disappeared facts.

    1) We don't have a press corps

    Whatever we have has a hidden agenda. "Presumably" says Bob. My guess is they don't like seeing all those government employees just walking about, staring into buildings. Given that it is Washington, many may be black and dressed in hoodies. Something's wrong with them. We just don't know. But something is suspicious. And menacing.


    Emperor Daibazaal, grasper of the Tusk

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    Replies
    1. Emperor, maybe you could provide an outline of what THD should be writing about, or perhaps start your own blog

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    2. ricky schneiderhanAugust 27, 2013 at 5:54 PM

      Shorter AC/MA: it's Bob's blog - love it or leave it!

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    3. Mr. schneiderhan has an interesting generational reference familiar to those
      "really" raised on the Kingston Trio.

      As for AC/MA, I have no beef with the topics selected by Mr. Somerby, including, but not limited to, his constant beef with what other dogs are not barking about.

      I have but one goal, to make TDH truly incomparable, much like an MSNBC host might be falsely hyped by their lead in anchor. Were Bob not enclosed by the flaws he finds in others, what a remarkable blog this would be.

      Emperor Daibazaal, grasper of the Tusk

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  6. Why are we assuming David Farenthold is smart enough to adjust figures for inflation? A Harvard degree doesn't confer this particular thing on a person, necessarily.

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