Unpacking the $700 Billion

Papers should embrace context, clarity and skepticism

Since the federal bailout of Wall Street was proposed earlier this week, the press has done its best to try and contextualize its $700 billion sum. “What is $700 billion worth?” lists have popped up all over the place, in an attempt to bring meaning to a number that is difficult to comprehend in everyday dollars.

This frame can seem trivial in the somber light of the crisis. Some seek to sensationalize the $700 billion with irrelevant contrasts (how many ice cream spoons would it buy?). But others draw legitimate comparisons (how many times would it have rebuilt Katrina?) that clarify the scale of the bailout. Check out both types, here, here and here. With varied levels of success, these are attempts to unpack the $700 billion in ways that make the most sense to average Americans, and they’re good-faith efforts.

The “what’s it worth” question ultimately seeks to lend credence and shape to popular outrage, reframing the proposed sum as a series of knowable quantities rather than as a lump-sum solution being pushed through Congress. But even as we note these efforts, we might also argue that some blame for this crisis can be attributed to the decline of truly populist reporting in the first place—the kind of reporting that, glibly put, would have better connected what was happening on Wall Street to what the residents of Main Street could expect further down the road.

Since Monday, when Megan wrote about the missing rage in journalists’ accounts of the financial meltdown and proposed bailout, many news outlets have begun to take up the populist cry that rightly argues that this isn’t the taxpayers’ fault. And for now, the press should continue to ground coverage in context and a healthy skepticism, as Ryan argues, thereby decreasing the likelihood of under- or over-estimation of the bailout cost and how the process will play out.

How? Continue to unpack the hugeness of the number, which raises some of the legitimate reasons for the public anger evident in editorials and comment sections of the papers’ news sites. Specify ways that the number is misleading: the government, and taxpayers, will probably get something return on their money in due time. Some reporters are trying, rightly, to push the notion that it isn’t $700 billion or nothing. Check out two good examples here and here. And, last but not least, allot some extra space for personal finance reporters, as many papers have done, to answer questions from curious or panicked readers. Personal finance Q&As might not be directly related to the cost of the bailout, but in a trickle-down sort of way, they can provide background information that is very helpful.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.