Time to leave budget biases behind

Deficits are falling and government jobs are disappearing. Is it really so obvious we have a spending problem?

With the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration set to take effect Friday—and plenty of other budget wars looming on the horizon—now is as good a time as any for reporters to examine their work for subtle biases that can arise from working inside the Beltway.

As Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition executive director and gambling advocate explained more than a decade ago, “In public policy, it matters less who has the best arguments and more who gets heard—and by whom.” And in the current budget debate, the people getting heard are often those pushing the argument that spending is out of control and must be cut, and that cuts must be made to so-called entitlement programs.

Writing as if such views are revealed truths leads to bias in news reports, and in some cases to simple error. Consider a recent McClatchy piece that described sequestration as a way to force the federal government to find a way to “curb soaring deficits”—even though when the sequester deal was struck in 2011, the annual budget deficit was shrinking rapidly from its 2009 peak. That sort of writing may explain why a recent Bloomberg poll found that only 6 percent of Americans know that the federal budget deficit is now declining (and sharply).

Those ill-informed members of the public might also be surprised to know that government jobs are disappearing under Obama—many of them state and local employees let go as federal aid from the stimulus package expired. During Obama’s first term government employment declined by 719,000 jobs, or 3.2 percent.

Since Eisenhower was inaugurated, the only other decline occurred during President Reagan’s first term, when government jobs fell by 24,000—a fraction of one percent. During Reagan’s second term government employment grew by more than 1.4 million.

Even reporting that acknowledges these key facts often falls prey to budgeting biases. Wednesday’s New York Times featured an engaging front-page piece by Binyamin Appelbaum that opened with a clear explanation of the federal government’s “turn toward austerity,” and a look at austerity’s impact on jobs and short-term growth.

But from there, the article turns to the question of when and how to cut overall spending—not whether to do so.

One day before the budget cuts are to begin, another front-page Times story suggested that both Democrats and Republicans are “are learning to live with—if not love—the so-called sequester.”

Jonathan Weisman reported that many Republicans are glad to see less government and some Democrats are glad to see some reductions in military spending. But while a recounting of each sides’ thinking can be useful, Weisman could have offered some leavening to the ideological viewpoints he catalogues—such as noting, in reply to Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey’s claim that “there are certainly many of us who realize we have got to get spending under control,” that the government’s share of GDP here remains smaller than that of many other modern economies.

But along with Beltway bias in favor of spending reductions, much reporting on sequestration has been based on tidbits fed to journalists by opponents of the pending cuts, rather than deeper inquiry. A leaked National Park Service memo about sequestration’s impact, for example, led to a doomsday-scenario write-up in the San Francisco Chronicle that didn’t consult independent sources.

And USA Today offered up sizzle, missing the steak, when sports writer Gary Mihoces wrote about an end to flyovers at sporting events by B-2 stealth bombers, the Air Force Thunderbirds, and the Navy Blue Angels. Even granting some leeway to a sports section piece, missing were key details like whether these planes are actually useful in providing the common defense, the estimated $135,000 per hour cost to fly the B-2, and the $2.1 billion cost to build each of them. Then there’s the $60 million cost just to refresh their radar-absorbing coating, as the Los Angeles Times detailed in 2010.

Mihoces also made passing reference to possible “cuts to service academy athletics departments.” Readers would have been better served if he had noted the more than 230 golf courses the military operates at home and abroad, and inquired about what the courses cost and how they contribute to the national defense.

All sides have talking points. Journalists should use them to start an inquiry, not take them at face value.

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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: , , ,