Which Is It, NYT?

Times piece on pay cuts contradicts earlier story

The other day, Kevin Drum noted how confusing it can be for readers when two different papers report substantially different versions of the same story. But how about when the disagreement occurs within the news pages of the same publication? Consider this passage from Dave Leonhardt’s column in the Sept. 16 The New York Times, which appeared on the front of the business section:

For the first time since perhaps the Great Depression, it seemed possible that average hourly pay would actually begin falling, even before inflation was taken into account.

But that’s not what has happened.

Wage growth has picked up in the last several months, according to two different government surveys. You don’t hear or read nearly as many stories about pay cuts these days. Even though unemployment has reached its highest level in 26 years, most workers have received a raise over the last year.

And now Louis Uchitelle, from the front page of today’s Times:

In recent decades, layoffs were the standard procedure for shrinking labor costs. Reducing the wages of those who remained on the job was considered demoralizing and risky: the best workers would jump to another employer. But now pay cuts, sometimes the result of downgrades in rank or shortened workweeks, are occurring more frequently than at any time since the Great Depression…

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track pay cuts, but it suggests they are reflected in the steep decline of another statistic: total weekly pay for production workers, pilots among them, representing 80 percent of the work force. That index has fallen for nine consecutive months, an unprecedented string over the 44 years the bureau has calculated weekly pay, capturing the large number of people out of work, those working fewer hours and those whose wages have been cut. The old record was a two-month decline, during the 1981-1982 recession.

“What this means,” said Thomas J. Nardone, an assistant commissioner at the bureau, “is that the amount of money people are paid has taken a big hit; not just those who have lost their jobs, but those who are
still employed.”

Maybe these two accounts can be reconciled, technically, by noting small differences in the time period covered, or the precise standard used to measure wages. But the average reader is left with the sense that in the big picture, one of them must be wrong, or at the very least incomplete.

How are readers, though, to know which one? One way is by reading other expert commentators—Dean Baker, for example, found fault with the Leonhardt column at the time it was published, and Felix Salmon had his own quibbles. It would be awfully nice, though, for the Times itself to acknowledge the disparate conclusions of two of its better-known writers, and to help readers understand why they are at odds. That’s not something newspapers have historically been designed to do, but fortunately the Times has a logical venue for such an exchange—its “Economix” blog, where Leonhardt previously responded to criticisms of his column. There’s no discussion of the Uchitelle article there yet; it’ll be interesting to see whether that changes.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.