One document, many interpretations

Varied takes on CBO report show "the media" is a competitive market, not a monolith

What a difference reporters and editors can make in choosing from the same report what is news and where and how to play it. This competitive diversity was on full display this week, after the Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday released its latest assessment of where the federal budget and the economy are headed.

The CBO report offered a lot of details to pick from in deciding how to frame the story. Was it that the federal budget deficit this fiscal year would go below a trillion dollars for the first time in five years? Or that in 2020 federal debt may equal 77 percent of Gross Domestic Product? Or that the federal budget deficit as a share of the economy is expected to stabilize? Or that an austerity approach to budgeting will mean a lot fewer jobs and a lot less economic growth? Or was this all backstory for President Obama’s latest proposal seeking additional tax revenues and a short-term delay in budget cuts? Or, well, there were a lot of options.

Pick your paper and pick your perspective, as what is so often called “the media” once again showed that news remains a competitive business where different journalists make quite different decisions about what is significant. And that, in turn, shows why reliance on any one news organization is not a good idea.

In print editions, the CBO’s analysis of where we are and where we appear to be going often gets inside treatment. But with the March 1 deadline for automatic spending cuts known as “the sequester” looming, and President Obama trying to use his surprisingly comfortable re-election to move Republicans toward his agenda,

The Wall Street Journal’s front page Wednesday was dominated by a story headlined, “Debt Rise Colors Budget Talks.” The subhead emphasized the federal debt level in 2020 “unless officials act,” focusing on just one aspect of a comprehensive and crystal-clear report by Damien Paletta.

The Washington Post lead its front page with a one-column story, “Obama Urges Fast Fix on Cuts,” that took a hard news approach to short-term political fights while citing the president’s request for “fresh tax revenue.”

Readers had to get to Page A10 of the Los Angeles Times to learn from Washington bureau reporters Lisa Mascaro and Christi Parsons that the federal budget deficit is projected to fall below $1 trillion for the first time in five years—but also that this “substantial improvement in the fiscal outlook… masks a persistent budget gap that will probably worsen later this decade.” The fall below the trillion-dollar threshold was also the emphasis in an AP report picked up by USA Today.

The New York Times gave the CBO report little more than passing mention, threading key points after the jump of a front-page piece by Michael D. Shear and Jackie Calmes on President Obama’s latest budget proposal.

The first online version of the Times story, posted around 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, also used a concluding and politically charged phrase noticed late Tuesday night by Dean Baker, a liberal economist whose Beat The Press blog critiques economics coverage.

“New deficit projections will define the scope of the nation’s spending problem,” the Times article stated—a framing that, Baker noted, suggests the deficits result from runaway spending rather than insufficient revenues or economic collapse.

The line was removed Tuesday evening, Greg Brock, the Times’s standards editor, told me in an email. Brock added that the change does not indicate that the paper, or reporter Shear, necessarily thinks the sentence was factually wrong.

Brock said that Shear “deleted the section that reference was in. He didn’t do so because it was wrong or because an editor asked him to do so. He just needed to cut the story and that’s where he cut it.”

Readers of the Post’s lead piece, meanwhile, may have shaken their heads at the article’s framing for a different reason. Reporters Lori Montgomery and Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote that:

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office rolled out new projections showing that the spending battles of the past two years have helped shrink record budget deficits but have also hampered economic growth.

The bit about shrinking deficits alongside hampered growth is correct and important, but “political battles” generally do not have these effects. Episodes of extraordinary brinksmanship aside, it is actual taxing and spending decisions, not debate about them, that shapes economic results.

Later, the Post reporters squeezed concepts in a jarring way:

The improvement in the 2013 deficit is due in large part to tax increases adopted Jan. 1 and to the automatic spending cuts, known as the “sequester.” Together, the CBO said, those policies are expected to shave about 1.25 percentage points off economic growth this year and to cost the nation about 1.5 million jobs.

Again, this is correct, but slowing down and explaining each concept could have avoided the confusing juxtaposition of budget “improvement” with the depressing data about slower economic growth and fewer jobs.

That sort of unpacking was done over at the Post’s Wonkblog, where Neil Irwin had a smart piece drawing attention to just how much the lingering economic slowdown has reduced Gross Domestic Product, compared to the CBO’s estimate of potential GDP. The “output gap” is about 6 percent—or a trillion dollars annually.

And Wonkblog scored again with a post by Brad Plumer (helpfully linked in the online version of Montgomery and Goldfarb’s article) that explains the new budget outlook in six charts, concisely explained to focus readers on the salient points.

In his A1 story, the Journal’s Paletta also gave thought to readers and the nuances of fiscal issues. His third graf included a parenthetical explanation of the difference between the federal budget deficit and the federal debt:

The deficit is the difference between spending and revenues in a given year; the debt is the government’s total borrowing or the sum of past deficits.
That reminder would have been even better had it not implied budgets are always in deficit, and instead stated that a deficit occurs when spending exceeds revenues in a given year. As the line cut from the NYT piece shows, when reporters sit down to write they need to be careful about letting politically charged messages from the Washington echo chamber slip past their skepticism.

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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: , , ,