Hype Machine In High Gear for Journal Jets Story

The Wall Street Journal, which we criticized on Friday for hyping and distorting a story on Congress buying jets, goes back to the well today for a sort of pre-victory lap.

Outrage has been induced, and, perhaps most importantly, Drudge bait has been taken. Lily-livered politicians, already under siege by a movement of “teabaggers” set off by a pinstripe-suited CNBC talking head, are backpedaling.

The paper reports on the jets backlash above the fold (newsstand-sales fodder) on the right column of page one—above even its Cronkite-moment story (well, not exactly) headlined “Taliban Now Winning.”

Relegated to B1 is the far more important story—one that actually has implications for business and the economy—about office-tower landlord Maguire Properties going bust on more than a billion dollars worth of properties.

One of the biggest concerns we had with Friday’s story was that the paper barely mentioned, didn’t explain, and then glossed over the idea that buying the planes might actually save money in the long run, something I think you could call “an investment.”

The Journal gets to this today—in the ninth and tenth paragraphs:

Lawmakers who support funding for the planes say the move would save the government money down the road because the new planes are less expensive to operate than the older planes, some of which are now grounded.

“The key here is not whether or not planes will be bought, it’s when planes will be bought,” said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that approved the spending. He has said the planes are predominately used by the military, with roughly 15% of the Air Force’s passenger flights dedicated to congressional travel.

That’s an improvement over Friday, but wait: Are “lawmakers” just spinning or would the move actually save money? How long would the payback period be? We’re not told, and there’s zero data here to let us do the math ourselves.

The payback period is a way for a business to analyze whether to make an investment, by determining how long it takes for the new equipment to pay for itself in money saved operating it.

A one-year payback period is a lot different than a fifteen-year payback period and telling us which it is would go a long way toward informing a real debate on whether it’s worth spending this money at a time of massive deficits.

But even if the planes paid for themselves in six months, this one’s a political loser and the politicians know it. Too bad the Journal stirs the pot rather than using a level head here.

As I said on Friday, dear commenters with happy trigger fingers:

This is all too bad because there’s a legitimate story here about whether Congress should be spending half a billion dollars on private planes right now (does it make any economic sense given that they’re replacing “more expensive” planes?)—or whether it is abusing this privilege.

Another point to note here, as we said on Friday, is it’s clear that this is an editor-driven story. If that wasn’t obvious on Friday, it is now that the paper has run three page-one stories on the “issue” in three days (the one on Saturday, detailing one legislative trip—with context, was the least-worst of the three).

The story’s kicker is a litany of trips about to be taken by congresspeople and their spouses.

The day after the House began its summer holiday, Mr. Boehner, the House Republican leader, and five other lawmakers departed for a two-week trip around the globe. They were Reps. David Camp of Michigan, the senior Republican on the Ways and Means Committee; Dan Boren (D., Okla.); Jo Bonner (R., Ala.); Tom Latham (R., Iowa); and Greg Walden (R., Ore.), according to a travel document reviewed by the Journal and an aide to one member.

The goal of the trip, which will include stops in Germany, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China, was to discuss issues surrounding the global economic crisis and national security with government and private-sector officials in those countries. At least some of the lawmakers took their spouses, which they are allowed to do under House rules for “protocol” purposes…

This month, Mr. McCain is scheduled to leave with a group of senators for a weeklong trip to Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iceland…

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) and other senators and their spouses are planning to travel to the U.K. for the week before the Senate reconvenes after Labor Day. The purpose of the trip, according to a spokeswoman for Sen. Gregg, is an annual meeting with members of the British Parliament.

Excuse me if I find those trips utterly inoffensive. Tahiti they ain’t.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.