Q&A: New York Times Reporter Jackie Calmes

“The Internet has changed how you report on the budget”

At 9:30 am last Monday, New York Times White House correspondent Jackie Calmes began poring through five fat volumes of the just-released federal budget. She had already written two budget reports, one for the Sunday paper, another for Monday’s, and each was waiting in a malleable form on the Times website. Calmes’s first precious hour with the document was spent not writing a budget story, but updating one. And that’s how she’s spent most of the week.

Calmes has been covering the federal budget in some capacity for twenty-six years—her first was under Reagan when she was working at Congressional Quarterly. She has seen the process change, but the basics remain the same. Calmes spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares this morning about how the Times approached Obama’s third budget, sorting through the muck to find the newsworthiest angles, and dealing with those who like to throw stones at the paper for which she works. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Tell me how the details of this budget first come to be in your hands.

The general distribution this year was 9:30 a.m. on Monday and it was embargoed until 10:30 a.m., so you can have an hour to digest it. They also hand you a disc at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning to start looking at it. Frankly, though, I didn’t take advantage of that. If it had been the president’s first year, when everything’s a big surprise, I would have done that. But this year I had a fairly good sense of what was in it from early briefings with the administration. Every administration that I’ve been familiar with has leaked choice details weeks in advance. Then, the actual briefing on the budget overview is held on the days leading into the weekend. They’re geared towards getting weekend coverage before the budget generally comes out on the Monday.

When did the briefings start for this budget?

In this instance there were two of us at a briefing on Friday: two national newspaper reporters, including myself, and two senior officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget. They talked us through the major details and we got to ask questions.

That seems to be a PR coup for the White House.

They get to put their first stamp on the story. But on the other hand, they’ve invited people in who know a little bit about this, so it’s not like you’re going in completely tapped into their take on things. You bring some sophistication to it, and you know the questions to ask.

Is that the only briefing you have?

Fairly late Sunday there were briefings at the White House for more print journalists—there were twenty or so—with other budget and West Wing advisors. They walked us through the major points. I learned a little more but not much more than I had learned on Friday. As we left, there were some broadcast people going in for a separate briefing. There are also separate briefings for people who aren’t journalists at all, people who are influence-shapers, talking heads—the people who they know other reporters are likely to go to for quotes, whether in print or on the air.

In your experience does this White House disseminate budget info in much the same way as its predecessors?

It varies with each administration. I haven’t done it every year but I’ve had a piece of it nearly every year for twenty-six years. It’s much the same every year in some ways, because it’s the government and there is a structure to the budget that is virtually unchanged. The books are very similar. The fundamentals are the same.

Does that also apply to the way you report on the budget? Or have there been changes with technology and the developments of new styles of journalism

What’s really changed about how you do a report on a budget—and I have remarked to people about this this week—is the Internet. Like everything else, you have to feed the beast instantly, and constantly, so you have less time to digest the numbers and the policy implications. It’s one of the reasons you have the administration and the one before it, and I think the Clintons, giving you a heads-up to some of the national reporters. It’s their chance to get the message out and to describe it in their way.

In the past, budget day would be really big wherever I worked, all hands on deck. Every reporter with a beat would be rushing through a book to get to the section that dealt with his or her area—transportation, health, defense…. This year, that still happens, but to a much lesser degree than it used to. It also comes down to the fact that it’s bigger in a president’s first year because that’s his first statement of priorities.

What was the priority this year?

This year, the feeling was that we could put as much as possible on the web straight away. So it was on the web all day Monday—an overview story that I did and then separate smaller pieces and graphics that others did. For the paper on Tuesday there’s a sense—and this isn’t unique to The New York Times—that readers who are interested in the budget have already gone online and absorbed it there. And so there is less space given over to budget coverage in the paper the next day than there once was.

It sounds like you have everything you need before the budget physically arrives. I’m wondering then what you do with it in the hour before embargo when it does finally land in the office?

We get multiple sets of the five-volume budget. Some editors look through them, the beat reporters look through them—for instance, Robert Pear absorbed everything he could on health policy—but it’s less of an all-hands-on-deck effort than it used to be.

When I get it, I start at the back where there are tables numbered F-1 to F-10. The really important tables are F-1 and F-2, where you get the spending outlays, receipts (tax revenues), the overall deficit, the total budget, the size of it as a percentage of GDP. You have to know what you’re looking for. If I were doing this for the first time I would take the previous year’s budget and study that before I just went in cold.

I did a story Sunday night embargoed for Monday’s paper, and at 10.30am on Monday, when the embargo on the budget itself was lifted and I had been through it, I updated the story online. An hour later, I updated it again, because the president had spoken in Baltimore. Then you start getting reactions. So, all day Monday you are updating for both things you learn and the reaction to the budget. It’s all great for the reader but the one drawback for anybody who covers the budget is that spending that much time feeding the beast of the web, it’s time you’re not really digging into the numbers and the policy. I’m still looking for things in it today.

How do you decide the initial angle of the first big budget piece—what to focus on most intensely? Is it a group effort at the Times?

I definitely suggest my thoughts, but there is other input. My editor here, Dick Stevenson, who has the virtue of being a former fiscal and economic and White House correspondent himself, does a lot of talking with me. The editors in New York—and Bill Keller and Jill Abramson both headed the Washington bureau—also have their thoughts. It definitely is a group effort. And then it falls to me to execute it.

Were the angles here obvious?

Pretty much. You always want to look at both the projected deficit for the current year, because that’s when the administration updates its figure, but also for the year for which the budget is intended. You want to look at how big that deficit is not just in dollar terms, but also as a percentage of the economy, the GDP, because that’s how economists across the board judge whether a deficit is sustainable or not. The rule of thumb in the United States and abroad is that 3 percent of GDP in a growing economy is considered sustainable. So, I look to see how much over we are—and we are well over right now. You also look to see what the trend is. When will those numbers, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of GDP, start to come down?

Next, you start looking for the mix of the revenues, and the spending outlays, not just for the next fiscal year but also for the next ten. You try to gauge trends—because we are on a very unsustainable trend, given the aging of the baby boomer generation and the inexorably rising cost of health care, in the private and public sectors. Then I begin breaking it down into the exact new domestic spending initiatives, domestic spending cuts, the military cuts—especially since we’re winding down two wars—to see what they’re projecting. Then you look at increases in and decreases in the tax code. In this budget, of course, there was intense interest in what the deficit was, what the numbers were going to be, and how soon they’d come down.

And all of that plays out in a very heated context you have to capture.

The backdrop to this budget is the much more comprehensive recommendations of the president’s own bipartisan fiscal commission. We already knew he was not going to embrace the fiscal commission’s recommendations—the commission would have reduced projected deficits by $4 trillion over ten years and the president claims that his budget will reduced those accumulated ten-year deficits by $1.1 trillion, so he’s about at one-fourth the level of his fiscal commission. That’s because the fiscal commission took on the entitlement benefit program to an extent the president did not.

The budget came later this year than usual, why is that?

A lot of the time the budget is released a lot closer to the State of the Union address. Traditionally, in the State of the Union address, the president previews the major elements that are new in his upcoming budget. The president did a little of that this year, but a) there wasn’t much new to preview, and b) the budget was delayed by three weeks after his State of the Union Address because the Senate had delayed confirmation of his new budget director late last year. That gave budget director Jack Lew a six-week late start on the budget. In addition to that, the president and Congressional Republicans did not agree to a tax-cut compromise until late December. All of that affected the bottom line—what budgeteers call the “base line”—from which you calculate.

Do you feel pressure about shaping the budget narrative, given the influence of The Times?

Yes, but not really any more pressure than I feel during any other story. I have the comfort of expertise, which helps a lot—I’d be a lot more pressured if I were twenty years younger and less experienced. But I do feel pressure to get it right. When I didn’t work at The New York Times—and everybody likes to throw stones at the Timeswhen they don’t work there—we used to joke that when The New York Times makes a mistake, reality must adjust. Now that I’m here, I realize The New York Times must not make a mistake because reality does not adjust. But what I can do is inadvertently force a lot of other people to make mistakes because other people pick up on our stuff and other papers run our stories. Every journalist at the smallest entities feels the pressure to be accurate. But if it’s possible to feel more of that pressure, then working for the Times will do it to you.

You mentioned how much people like to throw stones at The New York Times. Some in the right-wing online media have actually done just that wit your budget report, writing that your coverage was a little rosy.

They usually write to me too, to let me know. There are some days when I cannot open my reader e-mail not just because I am too busy but also because I’m just not in a psychological state to take some of the nastiness that you get.

I feel like I’m balanced. I don’t do anything at The New York Times that I didn’t do at The Wall Street Journal. I just do journalism. I get critics from the left too. If people are going to look at my stories through the ideological glasses they bring to it, they’re likely to be disappointed, because it’s my job to go down the middle.

You’re still a strong believer in that middle ground, even as it’s being challenged by online media and cable news?

I think about what I would want. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and my first jobs were in west Texas, and I was hungry for news that played it straight and gave me both sides. If I were someone who’s not in the thick of it, as I am, I would want to know facts and context in a way that helps me make my decisions. I think there are a lot of people who feel that way. Every time I feel a little tired of covering the budget, I tell myself that I write to people who truly want to know what the situation is and what it is that’s driving these deficits and what each side is proposing to do about it.

Speaking of a middle ground, at yesterday’s presser you asked the president why he hadn’t sat down with the Republicans. He gave you a pretty pat answer about what’s going on behind the scenes and being encouraged by the GOP response so far. Were you satisfied with that answer?

It wasn’t for me to be satisfied and he gave me pretty much the answer I expected. But it was good to get his perspective. It helped because until he spoke yesterday, all I had to go on what he was thinking, was what officials or what people close to the White House were saying. It never hurts to hear from the president even if you’re not getting the most candid answer he could give you.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,