PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — “I won’t be running anything else from Stephen Moore.”
So says Miriam Pepper, editorial page editor of the Kansas City Star—and not just because she’s retiring this week. Pepper’s no-Moore stance comes after her paper discovered substantial factual errors in a recent guest op-ed by Moore, the chief economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The episode serves as a cautionary tale for editors navigating the disputes of rival policy advocates—and a case study in the delicate art of running a correction.
It all began a month ago, when the Star ran a piece by the Nobel Prize-winning economist-turned- liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as it does regularly. The column named Moore as one of the “charlatans and cranks” who have influenced policymakers at all levels to enact low-tax, supply-side economic policies—with ruinous effects, according to Krugman. The sweeping 2013 tax cut in Kansas is only the latest example, he wrote, citing unfavorable economic and fiscal news in the Sunflower State.
After the column ran, Pepper told me, “I was contacted by Moore’s people saying they wanted to run a response.” In the interest of fairness, she agreed.
Moore, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, submitted a version of a column that originally ran in Investor’s Business Daily. Contra Krugman, the column argued that Kansas’s tax-cut experiment needed more time to work, and cited statistics to show that states “following Krugman’s (and President Barack Obama’s) economic strategy are getting clobbered by tax-cutting states.”
The Star ran Moore’s column on July 7. It wasn’t until weeks later that Pepper realized there were problems with it. The bad news came from one of her own columnists, Yael Abouhalkah, who had taken another look at Moore’s op-ed while researching an editorial he was writing, and realized that one key paragraph—the one containing the most specific data in support of Moore’s claim—didn’t check out.
Moore had written:
No-income-tax Texas gained 1 million jobs over the last five years; California, with its 13 percent tax rate, managed to lose jobs. Oops. Florida gained hundreds of thousands of jobs while New York lost jobs. Oops.
The recurring “oops,” intended as a dig at Krugman, took on an unintended irony after Abouhalkah discovered that Moore’s numbers did not match those of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, Moore later acknowledged, he was using BLS numbers not from “the last five years” but from an earlier five-year period: December 2007 to December 2012. Focusing on that period is arguably dubious, because the span captures the depths of the Great Recession and the housing crash, which hit some states harder than others—and whose impact likely would have swamped any tax-rate effect. There are other issues with the quality of Moore’s argument, too, like its glancing-at-best treatment of how factors like housing costs shape population and job growth.
In any case, Abouhalkah found, Moore’s numbers were wrong even for 2007-12, in ways that complicated the “low taxes = more jobs” message. As Abouhalkah wrote in a column this week:
Texas did not gain 1 million jobs in the 2007-2012 period Moore measured. The correct figure was a gain of 497,400 jobs.
Florida did not add hundreds of thousands of jobs in that span. It actually lost 461,500 jobs.
New York, with [its] very high income tax rates, did not lose jobs during that time. It gained 75,900 jobs.
In an email exchange, Pepper says, she presented Abouhalkah’s findings to Moore, and he agreed to a detailed correction, which ran on page 2 of the paper in an edition last week. The Star’s corrected version of the online column, published July 24, can be seen here.
Moore’s piece, and the mistakes it included, did not appear only in the Star. When Abouhalkah discovered the errors, Pepper informed editors at the Wichita Eagle, the Star’s sister McClatchy paper, which had also run the piece. The Eagle ran its own correction, somewhat different from the Star’s. The original version published in Investor’s Business Daily remains uncorrected as of this writing. (IBD, which identifies Moore as part of its “brain trust,” did not respond to a request for comment.)
I sent links for all of these versions to Craig Silverman, a former CJR contributor who now writes the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error blog. “This is a great case study to show the lack of standardization with corrections from one news outlet to another,” he replied.
The Star’s online correction is signaled at the top with an editor’s note, with detailed corrective material in-line. The offending passage now reads:
Please see editor’s note at the top of this column. No-income-tax Texas gained 1 million jobs over the last five years, California, with its 13 percent tax rate, managed to lose jobs. Oops. Florida gained hundreds of thousands of jobs while New York lost jobs. NOTE: These figures are incorrect. The time period covered was December 2007 to December 2012. Over that time, Texas gained 497,400 jobs, California lost 491,200, Florida lost 461,500 and New York gained 75,900. Oops.
The Eagle took a different approach with its online correction, leaving the problematic paragraph intact but noting the errors at the top of the page:
Correction: The 5-year time period mentioned in this piece was December 2007 to December 2012. Over that time, Texas gained 497,400 jobs, California lost 491,200, Florida lost 461,500 and New York gained 75,900. The totals in this piece are incorrect.
Silverman found negatives and positives in both examples:
The Star’s approach is good in that it makes it clear what was wrong within the text of the article, and it flags that something was wrong right at the top. The Eagle did well to put the correction at the top of the piece and to include the correct totals. However, in both cases there is a concern that leaving the original, incorrect numbers within the text itself may result in some people being confused, or even retaining the incorrect claims.
When I presented this critique to Pepper, she said it was “interesting and good advice” but said she felt it was important to keep the original text alongside the correction, so there would be no confusion for readers about what had been written and what had been corrected.
There’s also the larger question of what the corrections do to Moore’s overall point in the op-ed. As Silverman noted, the paragraph “arguably contains the most important statistics in the piece,” and “the Florida/NY comparison now refutes his claim… the whole thing reads very messy for anyone trying to decide whether his is a convincing argument.”
It would be good, he said, for the papers to get some comment from Moore “about whether his errors undercut his argument.”
The Star did, eventually, get such a response. Abouhalkah’s latest column, which appeared online Tuesday, quoted an email from Moore to the Star in which the Heritage economist said, “I do regret the mistakes in my piece,” but added, “My point is that they don’t change the conclusion that the no income tax states have substantially outperformed the high income tax states over every period since about 1970….”
It’s not an especially full-throated reckoning, but Pepper says it’s more than Moore offered at the time of the original correction. As she tells it, the statement came only at the end of a “snippy” email exchange in which Moore complained about a July 25 Abouhalkah column further highlighting his errors. (That column was picked up by the liberal group Media Matters, and from there by Krugman himself.)
After my own (non-snippy) email exchange with the press folks at Heritage, they sent me a corrective statement attributed to Moore:
CORRECTION: One part of Moore’s column contained data that was incorrect, and we regret the error. The time period covered was December 2007 to December 2012. Over that time, Texas gained 497,400 jobs, California lost 491,200, Florida lost 461,500 and New York gained 75,900. The general point of the op-ed remains correct: state policy dramatically affects job opportunities and low tax policies have proven to lead to more job growth in the long term. As Moore accurately made clear in his original column: “This does not mean all states that cut taxes have growth or that all states with high taxes don’t have growth. It means there is a strong propensity for low-tax and tax-cutting states to grow. Period.”
The version of Moore’s op-ed at the Heritage site was corrected today to remove the incorrect material. The problematic New York/Florida data for 2007-2012 was dropped entirely, and replaced by numbers from a longer time period (1990-May 2014) that support Moore’s point. Paradoxically, it’s more persuasive than the original, even if there are still complicating factors he doesn’t really address.
Asked today to reply to Pepper’s comments, Heritage provided another statement that made the same points: “One part of the column contained data that was incorrect, and we regret the error… As noted in the correction, use of the correct data still supports the conclusion reached in the original column.”
A lesson learned
Of course, the responsibility here is not Moore’s alone. As Silverman says, “each of these outlets bear responsibility for the op-eds they publish. There are so few stats in this piece that it would seem reasonable to expect someone on the op-ed page to check them before accepting the column. That would have prevented this issue.”
Pepper acknowledges this responsibility. “We did not factcheck his BLS figures that we found out later were incorrect, and that was a failure on our part,” she says.
As for the Wichita Eagle, opinion editor Phillip Brownlee told me in an email that the paper did vet the piece before publishing, but failed to catch the errors in question.
Of course, both Pepper and Brownlee were republishing a piece that had appeared elsewhere first—it was in IBD before the Star—and therefore should have been factchecked already.
“You assume Heritage has edited these pieces too,” Pepper says. “But, lesson learned. There will be no future Heritage pieces published that don’t get thorough factchecking.”
And, hopefully, pieces from other guest writers will get the same treatment.