On 44th Street, the Debt Piles Up - and So Do the Reporters

Reporters discover the latest threat to Times Square: The National Debt Clock is about to run out of digits.

Reporting on the national debt is a daunting task. Deadly, slumber-inducing phrases lurk at every turn. Long-term interest rates. Entitlement reform. Fluctuations in the national savings rate.


In recent months, however, reporters have stumbled onto a seemingly novel way into the story: a clock.

The AFP news service has become the latest in a growing line of news organizations to send a reporter on a pilgrimage to 44th street in New York City — home to the so-called “national debt clock.”

“Tick, 20,000 dollars, tock, another 20,000 dollars,” wrote AFP. “So rapid is the rise of the U.S. national debt, that the last four digits of a giant digital signboard counting the moving total near New York’s Times Square move in seemingly random increments as they struggle to keep pace.”

“The national debt clock, as it is known, is a big clock,” added AFP. “A spot-check last week showed a readout of 8.3 trillion — or more precisely 8,310,200,545,702 — dollars … and counting. But it’s not big enough.”

As AFP went on to explain, all of the runaway fiscal irresponsibility in Washington is threatening to overwhelm the technological capabilities of the national debt clock.

“Sometime in the next two years,” reported the AFP, “the total amount of U.S. government borrowing is going to break through the 10-trillion-dollar mark and, lacking space for the extra digit such a figure would require, the clock is in danger of running itself into obsolescence.”

In the meantime, journalists are flocking to the clock.

Over the past month, outlets from CNN’s American Morning to the New York Times to the Christian Science Monitor to The McLaughlin Group have reported the looming predicament of the national debt clock.

The quality of the clock reportage has varied considerably. So far, all of the news outlets have done a thorough job of reporting on how the skyrocketing national debt is threatening the national debt clock. But some clock-chroniclers appear to have missed out on a related story — specifically, how all that debt is also threatening a little thing called the U.S. economy.

Witness a story about the clock that aired Tuesday on CNN’s American Morning.

“Well, it seems that President Bush may be running out the clock, literally,” reported Carol Costello. “I’m of course talking about the debt clock. It’s been ticking away in Times Square since the Reagan administration. Back then, the debt was 2.7 trillion. But now, we’re up to more than 8 trillion. That’s $8,310,200,545,702.”

“Anyway, the clock watchers are not sure what to do if it hits 14 digits or 10 trillion,” added Costello. “You see, the clock isn’t set up to handle that many numbers.”

“Unbelievable,” said host John Roberts, a little while later. “You know there are some forecasts that it could hit $20 trillion or even $40 trillion in the next 20 or 30 years.”

“Wow!” responded Costello. “Wow!”

“Not just a problem for the clock,” said host Soledad O’Brien.

“Not just a problem for the clock,” added Roberts.

At which point, one might expect CNN to shed some light on the particulars of said problem. Perhaps a bit of historical perspective comparing debt accumulation under various presidential administrations? Maybe some sort of economic analysis about the potential downside of borrowing so much money from foreign investors? Perhaps an interview with Peter G. Peterson?

Instead, CNN did the next logical thing: They segued into a story about a little boy in Ohio who had gotten in trouble for grabbing his classmate’s bottom.

So much for that pesky $8 trillion problem.

In the coming weeks, more reporters will no doubt succumb to the siren song of the threatened national debt clock. Hopefully — unlike the reporters at CNN — when they stare at the ticking clock, they’ll be able to see something beyond its surface.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.