Smart, straightforward sequester stories

A HuffPost survey and a close Wonkblog look at cancer treatment stand out

Covering the effect of the across-the-board federal spending cuts does not have to be expensive, and it does not have to take a lot of time. But it does take some smarts and a readiness to do some research. Two pieces this week offer good models to other journalists.

On Tuesday, Amanda Terkel and Sam Stein produced a smart Huffington Post piece about the myths and realities surrounding the federal spending cuts—known as “sequestration”—that began March 1 and are slated to continue through at least Sept. 30, 2014.

They began by pointing to a short piece of stenographic reporting by Zack Southwell for The News Star, Gannett’s paper in Monroe, LA, about a speech by a local Congressman:

Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, acknowledged the limited effects of the federal sequestration, despite the preconceived notion they would be worse. … Alexander said sequestration has not been as devastating as once perceived.

Terkel and Stein present this as an example of the emerging “article of faith” that warnings about the budget cuts were overblown. This line of thinking holds, they write, that “the economy was supposed to be brought to its knees by the $85 billion in cuts. Instead, we trudge along in a new normal.”

Then they continue:

This is a dramatic misunderstanding of what’s actually happening. The grips of sequestration are just now beginning to be felt and the effects are already quite dramatic.

Organizations and companies have begun laying off workers, while many more have decided not to staff vacant positions. Schools on military bases are contemplating four-day weekly schedules. Food pantries have closed, as have centers that provide health services. Farmers have been forced to go without milk production information, causing alarm in the dairy industry and the potential of higher milk prices. Workers at missile-testing fields are facing job losses. Federal courts have closed on Fridays. Public Broadcasting transmitters have been shut down. Even luxury cruises are feeling the pinch, with passengers forced to wait hours before debarking because of delays at Customs and Immigration. Yes, sequestration is creating the possibility of another poop cruise.

To back up these claims, the HuffPost writers offer interviews with representatives of a handful of directly affected agencies and services—and then they link to an even 100 stories from the prior week, culled from local newspapers, TV stations, hyperlocal sites, and business-press outlets, about the impact of the budget cuts in communities around the country. That’s smart (and low-cost) reporting, an excellent example of how to make use of the work of others in a way that credits that work.

It’s also evidence that one claim made by Terkel and Stein at the top of their piece—that “the media have lost interest” in the sequestration story—isn’t entirely true. Elite national media may have moved on, but the impact of sequestration has been covered in many local outlets. (This is an observation that BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczyinski has made before.)

Another bit of smart sequestration reporting came from Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” who wrote a compelling story Wednesday about how some cancer patients were being denied chemotherapy treatment because of the cuts:

Cancer clinics across the country have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts.

Oncologists say the reduced funding, which took effect for Medicare on April 1, makes it impossible to administer expensive chemotherapy drugs while staying afloat financially.

Patients at these clinics would need to seek treatment elsewhere, such as at hospitals that might not have the capacity to accommodate them.

Medicare was partially shielded from the sequester, Kliff explained, but the portion of the program that pays for chemotherapy drugs was subject to a 2 percent cut. Since the government already limits what community oncologists can charge for the drugs—they’re allowed a small markup on the average sales price, to cover overhead—and the centers don’t have any control over the price they way for the drugs, even the smaller reduction in Medicare payments was enough to make chemotherapy a money loser.

What happened next demonstrates why careful and thorough reporting that includes reading the laws and regulations at issue matters.

More than 5,000 people commented on Kliff’s article. Many were furious with Kliff, accusing of her of dishonesty. Typical was a comment by “Ms_KMA” who called Kliff’s piece “pure propaganda” and asserted that the sequester did not cut Medicare. “We have to rely on commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to tell us the truth about what’ really going on,” Ms. KMA wrote.

Kliff, wisely in my view, did not let these and similar attacks go unchallenged. She came back Thursday with a new piece headlined, “Rush Limbaugh is wrong: The sequester does cut Medicare.”

Showing that Limbaugh makes his facts up or bollixes them is easier than finding leaves in a forest. Still, it is important for journalists to establish the wild inaccuracy of statements of entertainers like Limbaugh and Hannity, because their nonsense circulates so widely and many people believe what they say is backed up by actual reporting.

Kliff included simple ways for doubters to verify that she got it right and Limbaugh did not. She quotes Limbaugh’s remarks and provides a link to the full transcript of his show; she also links to the Budget Control Act of 2011, while quoting the section of law that imposes a cut of up to 2 percent on Medicare.

As the budget cuts continue to take effect in the months ahead plenty of opportunities will arise for journalists in Washington and around the country to examine what actually happens—and, if need be, to push back against the fact-challenged comments of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Representative Alexander.

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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: , ,