WSJ’s Misleading Story on the Congress’s Jet Set

Let’s throw a little water on The Wall Street Journal’s page-one scoop that Congress is buying eight private jets for $550 million.

At first glance this profligacy is an outrage—an outrage, I say! Congress buying Gulfstreams for itself as it chides bailed-out corporate America for using them? Utter hypocrisy.

But peel back the layers a bit and it looks like the Journal has hyped the hell out of this story.

It’s reminiscent of the paper’s weak A1 pieces trying to create a congressional-expenses scandal like one that rocked the UK earlier this year—something I said had “more than a whiff of Rupert on” them.

First of all, the headline splashed across four columns at the top of page one: “Congress Gets an Upgrade: $500 Million Slated for Purchase of Eight More Planes as Lawmakers’ Travel Soars.”

But wait a second. These planes are for an Air Force fleet that’s barely used by Congress—at least compared to the others who also use it. Over the last five years, 86 percent of the use of the private-plane fleet has been by the White House and the military. Just 14.5 percent has been congressional use.

The headline and subheadline are clearly misleading, implying as they do that these are congressional planes and that it is adding eight new planes to its fleet. But here’s what you find after reading nearly three-hundred words (emphasis mine):

The House Appropriations Committee says the new purchases are designed to replace seven aging and more expensive business jets. The net impact is one additional plane owned by the federal government and a substantial increase in its passenger capacity.

So it’s adding one plane, not eight, as the WSJ subhed implies. Changes the tenor of the story, no? Now it’s not quite such a juicy, Drudge-worthy, top of A1 piece.

And let’s zero in on the first sentence of that paragraph: “the new purchases are designed to replace seven aging and more expensive business jets.”

What does “expensive” mean? Is Congress actually going to save money long-term by switching to planes that are cheaper to fly? Or does it mean that the purchase prices of the planes are lower than the ones they’re replacing. The Journal doesn’t say. That’s critical information here.

Then a couple of paragraphs down we’re told that Congress “spent about $13 million traveling the world last year, a tenfold increase since 1995.” That comes to about $24,000 per member of Congress in 2008. I’ll bet you a jar of Vegemite that’s a far lower bill than that of the senior executives of most Fortune 500 companies.

Maybe that’s because Congress’s accounting doesn’t include the full cost incurred by the travel, like say maintaining the planes, but the Journal doesn’t tell us any of that, either.

And what happens to the old planes? Presumably they’ll sell for something, offsetting part of that $550 million tab (although the market for planes isn’t exactly robust these days). That goes unexplored here.

The Journal, in an attempt to spice up the story even more, presents a couple of anecdotes, like several senators taking their wives to Europe for three weeks, that certainly sound suspicious. But there’s no context for that either. Why are they going? What are they doing there?

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.

But you can’t trust this story because it distorts the facts to sex up the issue. It’s a very British-style presentation, unsurprising since the newspaper is now run by folks who hail from Fleet Street.

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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 Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.