A second look at the sequester

And it isn't pretty. A Laurel to The Associated Press

The federal budget sequester is back in the news. Three months after these across-the-board budget cuts began—some $85 billion in all, over time—some journalists are putting a human face in the story, instead of writing in the dry abstractions of budget policy.

And others can easily follow up in the days ahead by modeling some solid work by The Associated Press, which gets a CJR Laurel for its efforts.

There are those in Congress who see these cuts as strengthening the economy. Old-fashioned reporting is showing something different, at least for now: damage to the economy, and to some of the scientific research on which much of our wealth is built. And to a growing number of people who are going hungry, with the rise of as pay cuts and joblessness, or getting sicker, with the loss of medical coverage.

The Associated Press did a marvelous job of following up on the sequester in a piece that took veteran reporters Sharon Cohen in Chicago and Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, NC, less than two weeks. Their 3,300-word piece lifted off this way:

More than three months into the sequester, it’s far too soon to measure the full impact of the start of a 10-year budget-cutting plan that was supposed to be so undesirable that it would force both sides on Capitol Hill to come up with something better. That didn’t happen. Many more furloughs are planned. Bills have been introduced to spare certain people, such as cancer patients, from the cuts’ effects. Others have been exempted. Congress, for example, passed a measure putting air traffic controllers back to work after flights were delayed around the country. But there is pain and anxiety, too, notably among the poor, the elderly and the sick — and social service agencies that serve them.

Cohen and Breed gave readers a series of vignettes rich with telling detail, including:

• the chief federal public defender in southern Ohio, who laid himself off;
• 50 Head Start teachers in Kentucky thrown into poverty along with their children when they were laid off;
• Florida workers whose last four weeks of extended unemployment benefits were denied without warning;
• a woman made homeless by hurricane Katrina eight years ago, who was about to get housing but did not;
• a physician whose breast cancer research grant was slashed 75 percent;
• elderly Meals on Wheels participants who will eat less often;
• cancer patients whose life-extending medicines are no longer available to them.

As for what Americans think about the sequester, the piece reported that

public opinion is divided: Fifty-six percent of Americans surveyed in an ABC News-Washington Post poll in May disapproved of the cuts, but far fewer — 37 percent — reported they’d been personally hurt. Still, that was up from 25 percent in March. Support varies by income, according to the poll; it’s highest for those with incomes of $100,000 or more.

Cohen and Breed showed that fact-based reporting that throws a wide net need not take a lot of time, nor cost a lot of money. Cohen said it was done by phone, without any travel.

The piece endd with the insights of Jay Jesse, who co-founded Intelligent Software Solutions in Colorado Springs in 1997 to do military work, and who had to lay off 50 workers this spring because of to lost Air Force work due to the sequester:

“The problem is sequestration just hacks with an axe indiscriminately,” he says. “I couldn’t randomly cut 10 percent of my budget without killing my company. I do think this is a dangerous activity.”

The consequences, Jesse says, may not be known for years.

“Uncertainty is the word I’ve heard a million times in the last year,” he adds. “This isn’t uncertainty inflicted upon us by an enemy. This is an uncertainty we built ourselves.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Corey Mitchell also took a look at people affected by the sequester—from elderly people worried they will go hungry if Meals on Wheels cuts back to defense workers looking at losing a fifth of their income.

Mitchell’s piece also told this story, in three paragraphs rich with costly implications:

Federal courts are feeling the pinch, with defendants waiting longer for trials. Katherian Roe, chief federal public defender in Minnesota, said she has yanked attorneys off high-profile ­trials to prevent a backlog of lower-level cases. To keep her attorneys paid, she has cut back on paid expert witnesses and let vacant positions go unfilled. Even so, the caseloads for Roe’s lawyers are growing. Attorneys from Roe’s office represent more than 80 percent of federal defendants. “Their representation is going to be compromised,” said U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, Minnesota’s chief federal judge.

Bloomberg ran a passable piece that had plenty of details, too, although he cast the issue as one of mayors griping about cuts in federal aid.

What these articles show is that there is plenty to be reported on about how the budget cuts are affecting lives.

The most suprising piece of recent news about the sequester, meanwhile, was largely ignored, buried, or presented without context. That news is that The International Monetary Fund criticized the sequester, in a sharp contrast to its usual prescription of austerity, as Paul Krugman noted in his Monday column.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, said Friday that “the sequester cuts not only reduce growth in the short term, but they also hurt the most vulnerable.”

Further, the IMF said that the “excessively rapid and ill-designed” budget cuts were damaging the American economy.

At the Los Angeles Times, reporter Jim Puzzanghera’s easy-to-read report ran in the business section. That placement was much better, however, than in The New York Times, which on Saturday buried an AP report on Page 6 of the business section, in a story that focused on the stock market ending the week down. Just one paragraph mentioned the IMF, and it was one of those and-on-the-other-hand lines that would leave the average reader confused.

USA Today’s Tim Mullaney, meanwhile, did an excellent report on the IMF’s analysis. Unfortunately, it only appeared online.

Now that the austerity-minded World Bank, as the IMF is known, has weighed in, journalists might focus on asking harder questions about the sequester, including what benefits, if any, are flowing from these spending cuts.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ. Tags: , , , ,