People aren’t too worried about the sequester. Is the media to blame?

Coverage is too often dull or absent, but NYT piece on air travel is a standout

Americans are not especially worried about the mandatory federal spending cuts set to begin March 1, widely cited polling by Pew Research Center and its new partner, USA Today, shows.

The poll of 1,504 respondents, conducted from Feb. 13-18 found that 49 percent of Americans want to delay the spending cuts, but 40 percent would let them take effect and 11 percent expressed no opinion.

Perhaps people are just worn out by the endless brinksmanship and perpetual state of fiscal crisis in Washington. But how much of that indifference is due to the amount of media coverage—and the style of that coverage—that the latest spending cuts, known as the sequester, have received?

Consider for example Andrew Taylor’s Thursday afternoon AP piece explaining what sequester is all about. The Q&A was as solid and factual as it was deadly dull.

A piece much more likely to engage readers, thanks to its specific focus and detailed reporting, ran Friday in The New York Times. Matthew L. Wald reported that air travel is about to become “like perpetual bad weather,” quoting a veteran business travel advocate on the effects of furloughing air traffic controllers. Wald’s piece was also rich with telling details, like how many more miles of spacing between jetliners would be required if 10 percent of controllers are sent home and overtime is cut.

Plenty of other issues are ripe for similar treatment—such as food safety, a topic that ought to be of near universal interest in a country that already has a much higher incidence of food-borne illness than Western Europe, Canada, or Japan.

By law, meat cannot be shipped across state lines until USDA employees inspect it—so a furlough of inspectors could leave to a shortage at supermarkets. Is that likely to happen? Reuters’s Charles Abbott reports that the Obama administration says it could, though not right away, while The Hill’s Pete Kasperowicz reports that Republican lawmakers say it had better not. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, meanwhile, seems confused. Asked about work rules for layoff notices, he said, “I’m not sure what it is in the food safety area,” according to Reuters.

The situation suggests that there is room for clearer reporting about just how much flexibility government agencies have if the sequester ax falls—and also that hard questions to USDA about how it would manage mandatory cuts could yield detailed facts about food inspection after March 1, or revealing insights into Vilsack’s competence.

Of course, when reporting on the impact of spending cuts, reporters should not rely only on projections from affected agencies. The Washington Post ran a remarkably detailed but utterly unbalanced piece, placed prominently on its digital front page Friday, that regurgitated dire warnings from generals and admirals about military spending cuts.

Not until the 12th paragraph was there any suggestion that military cuts might be anything but calamitous. And even then, reporters Ernesto LondoƱo and Lisa Rein offered only a bit of rhetoric from skeptics. Their article lacked any facts about military spending relative to the economy, over time, or the simple fact that the United States accounts for 41 percent of global military spending.

The press-release quality of the Post’s story was especially unfortunate because the military spending cuts are one element of the story that is now getting wide coverage. As BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski noted, sequester coverage showed up on the front page of 18 local newspapers Thursday; nearly all the stories were about the local economic impact of potential furloughs for civilian defense employees. A prominent article that accounted for those effects in a measured way while also noting the current outsized level of military spending would be a valuable public service.

If the Post’s Friday article is disappointing, worse still has been the coverage from the Los Angeles Times, whose news pages went AWOL on the story Friday and, the morning before, carried only David Lauter’s article on the Pew/USA Today poll. A look further back turns up a recounting of Obama’s comments earlier in the week, but little information that might tell readers how the budget cuts would affect their lives and businesses.

Reporting resources are stretched thin in many places, and judging by this week’s survey results, sequester coverage may not be drawing many web hits. But news organizations that do not report, in ways meaningful to their audience, what will happen before the budget cuts occur may find that if and when they do take place, the public’s nonchalance will turn into distrust—and perhaps even a turning away from the journalists who failed to tell them what was coming.

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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: , , , , , ,