Trivial Pursuit at ProPublica

There is a journalistic school of thought emerging, I fear, that holds that because you went to the trouble of investigating something you publish, whether you find anything worthwhile or not.

This comes to mind after reading a piece by ProPublica on supposed waste in government stimulus spending.

Stimulus for Cotton Candy, Tango and a Fish Orchestra? Wacky, or Actually Worthy?

The questioning headline already indicates there’s not much going on here, and the jokey tone of the piece feels almost like an apology:

Breakfast at Fuddruckers: $19.24.

Snow cone and cotton candy machine: $146.89.

Six extra preview performances of “Little House on the Prairie – the Musical”: $50,000.

Benefit to the economy? According to the recipients of this stimulus money: Priceless.

Of course, no one said the benefits were priceless, or unquantifiable, so the joke doesn’t really work. But I guess it’s the Internet, so whatever.

The piece reminds me of the WSJ’s own once-over-lightly “analysis” of stimulus reporting documents (on which the ProPublica story is also based) that found that the White House may have overstated the number of jobs created by the stimulus by three percent, a rounding error.

But at least the Journal doesn’t rely for its lead quote on the media director of some obscure tea-bagging operation((Update: See my mea culpa in comments below):

“This was not what people had in mind when they were talking about job creation,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste. “It was a gigantic pork barrel project from the first day out of the box, and it has proven itself to be every bit as swinish as we thought it would be.”

You know you are reaching when…. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this “citizen” is saying here that “it,” the entire stimulus package, was a gigantic pork barrel project from day one. How does that quote even fit this story, which deals, at most, with $1,300,200 and eighty cents, or 0.00016% (fixed to add a couple of zeros), of the $800 billion stimulus bill, if you’re going to get picky about it, which, apparently, this story is. And that’s only if you’re counting $1.25 million…

…to use electric fish from the Amazon to study how animals take in sensory information to move quickly in any direction. (See video.) The research could help in the development of underwater robots to find the source of toxic leaks. Further in the future, it could lead to new, far more agile prosthetics.

So, basic research. The “fish orchestra” in the headline is part of an interactive exhibit meant to get kids interested in science.

The cost of the snow cone machine is revealed to have been donated—so, not the stimulus. The breakfast at Fudruckers was “…an expense for two officers of a Texas business attending a National Science Foundation meeting in Washington, D.C.” Wow.

As for the $50,000 for the play, that’s what it was, $50,000 to pay actors and the rest to put on a play. This reminds me of Obama’s riposte to complaints that this stimulus bill was actually a spending bill. But of course, that’s exactly what it is. It was never meant to be anything else.

I’m all for investigating government operations. Who isn’t?

But I wonder sometimes if the press, perennially worried about being hit with the “liberal” tag, is being Mau-Maued into pouring resources into covering this particular story, whether there’s much to it or not. The Pentagon, meanwhile, spends $500 billion, not once, but every year.

This is about resource allocation and news judgment given an almost limitless array of problems to investigate, including what is shaping up what I suspect even ProPublica knows is the real stimulus story: that it’s probably too small.

ProPublica says it has five staffers on the stimulus story. How much does that cost?

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.