When Numbers That Don’t Exist Make It Into the Story

Sometimes we’re accused of harping on the same topic, and we plead guilty with intention. This is one of those times. In reading an AP story this morning headlined “Federal budget deficit drops again,” we got a sinking feeling that one of our pet peeves was about to rear its ugly head again.

As we read a mostly fair and even account of the drop in the federal deficit last year and the potential for it to rise again in the near future, we began to hope against hope that the AP wouldn’t slip up. And it didn’t — for the most part — until the final paragraph:

In early 2004, Bush said his goal was to cut the deficit in half in five years. Then, the White House forecast the deficit to be $521 billion for the 2004 budget year, and the president said his goal was to see that halved, to about $260 billion by 2009.

You see, here’s our problem: As even the AP noted earlier in the piece, in 2004 the federal government ran a deficit of $413 billion, which was well short of the estimate of $521 billion the White House had put forth and even below the $477 billion predicted by the Congressional Budget Office. So why, one wonders, would the AP even bother to mention the faulty $521 billion projection, which existed only in the imaginations of White House budget gurus?

If the deficit does indeed come down to $314 billion by the end of the year, as the CBO is predicting, that’s great news, but it will have come down from 2004’s $413 billion deficit, not from the non-existent $521 billion. Yet the story’s last paragraph makes it seem as if the deficit needs to hit $260 billion by 2009 for the president’s pledge to halve the deficit to come true. As seems obvious, however, it would need to fall to about $206 billion to be half the actual 2004 level.

Speaking of cutting, it seems like the AP’s piece might have been better served if an alert editor lopped off that last paragraph.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.