Government employees

Can We at Least Have Some Elementary Journalism in Budget-Cut Scare Stories?

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I loved this movie, and I don't care who knows it

The New York Times on Saturday led its front page with a 2,350-word feature on state and local governments' "major life-changing cuts in core services," which it ran under the headline "Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On." As has become my custom, I first scanned the piece to see if it bothered to include the word "pension." Yes, this once:

Suffering from steep declines in tourism and construction, and owing billions of dollars to a pension system that has only 68.8 percent of the money it needs to cover its promises to state workers, Hawaii instituted the furloughs even after getting $110 million in stimulus money for schools.

If you wanted to read any recognition in Saturday's Times of the inarguably damaging impact public-employee pension systems are having on state and local government budgets and provision of services, you'd have to consult not the front-page news article about, um, state and local government budgets and provision of services, but a column in the Business section. But why?

All snickering about the NYT's slant aside, it strikes me as an elementary journalistic principle–whether we're talking about your local daily, a magazine of opinion, or certainly The Paper of Record–that if you're going to wrap even a heavily anecdotal feature around what is essentially a number (the total budget for various governmental units), you would find room within 2,350 words to, I dunno, INCLUDE THE GODDAMNED NUMBER.

This is what happens when you close school for 17 Fridays

I mean, sure, we learn that Colorado Springs "shut off a third of its 24,512 streetlights this winter to save $1.2 million on electricity," and cut its police force from 687 to 643, but aside from that down-to-the-last-digit specificity we learn nothing about the city's (or even its police force's) budget, and how it compares to one, two, five, or 10 years ago. We read on three separate occasions that the state of Hawaii closed school down for 17 Fridays, but the only clue we have about either the state's or the education department's budget is the aforementioned $110 million in stimulus money. I really don't mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn't have passed muster at my college newspaper.

More indestructible than Jason?

Please note that I'm not asking for any journalistic outlet to agree with my POV on government spending here. In fact, it's quite possible that the inclusion of actual budget numbers in an article about the effect of budget cuts would rally readers in opposition to the kind of cold-hearted budget-slashing I prefer. But if you don't give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?

None of this is new, just continually irritating, and (from a journalistic point of view) embarrassing.

A trifecta of relevant Reason reading: "Failed States," "California's Silent Big Spenders," and "More Than Zero: Why won't people who love to make zero-sum arguments about the economy apply their own lessons to government spending?"

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  1. Good lord. The NY Times failure to mention pensions almost reminds me of this site’s complete blackout on everything Dave Weigel.

    1. Ezra, is that you?

    2. You mean like this and this?

      1. and since they won’t let me post more than two links, this?

        1. David Weigel

          1. Who are you voting for in November? I’ve got the luxury of a guilt-free, zero-impact vote in the District of Columbia, which I would cast for Bob Barr if he was on the ballot. Since he’s not, I’m voting for Barack Obama, the only remaining candidate whom I trust not to run the country (further) into the ground with stupid and erratic decisions,…

          1. I wonder if he thinks that’s working out at this point.

          2. Johnny Longtorso=the new Lonewacko

            Remember the non-stop Weigel vendetta? The threadjacks? The constant linking?

            1. The only difference is one is pretty close to being on target with a kind of funny salt in the wound meme, and the other was bat shit fucking insane.

              I can understand how you would confuse the two.

              1. You’re saying Longtorso is insane?

  2. Eh, this reminds me of the reporting on many issues that involve numbers or statistics. It would be great if journalists would actually give context to the few numbers they toss around.

    I find medical articles are the worst about it.

    (for example) We read an article on lung cancer and get the percentage of people with lung cancer who have smoked, but never once do you get a percentage of smokers who get lung cancer or if the number is increasing or decreasing or any sort of hard numbers at all.

    1. As a statistics teacher, I never have a shortage of “do not do this” examples from the news. However, as much as I distrust any mainstream press, I think most of the statistical misuse is due to overwhelming statistical ignorance in the journalism profession. As Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said “”Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence”.

      1. bikerider,

        Exactly. I’ve noticed that numbers in a newspaper article are almost never (as Matt mentioned) presented in any sort of context. We get something like “The city of Bilgesquat was forced to trim $2 million from the fund for executive toilet paper,” but it’s never said how much last year’s toilet paper budget was, or whether spending that kind of money on gold-leaf TP is maybe a not a wise choice of spending. Any kind of budget reduction is presented as a bad, scary thing, indicative of there not being enough money- not too much spending.

        1. The city of Bilgesquat was forced to trim $2 million from the fund for executive toilet paper

          Recently in my hometown, the local school board spent $40,000 putting in a barbeque pit. Not for teachers either, for the administrators downtown. Now they’re asking for an increase in their budget and people are getting pissed.

          1. Personally, I am in favor of a barbeque for administrators.

            1. Well, yes, but they must bve properly seasoned.

              1. Then there is the whole question of using wood, charcoal or god forbid natural gas.

              2. Wouldn’t you have to marinate them for months to make sure they weren’t too tough?

            2. And I *like* administrators……
              (rare)

              1. I like mine thoroughly cooked, because they are known to harbor parasites

            3. Hilarious.

              And I happen to be married to an administrator. She would probably rate it a toss-up as to which body part – brain or butt – had the most fat.

      2. Most things suck not simply because of incompetence, but because of real disincentives for competence.

        If journalists had an incentive to provide accurate and whole information, do you think they’d be as statistically ignorant? Maybe they actually have a disincentive. Would more statistically accurate reporting be less sensationalistic and less easy to fit into an agenda-driven narrative?

        1. Good question. From the few journalists who I’ve talked too (but NOT a statistically significant sample) it appears that statistical ignorance is passed down from one generation to the next. If journalism teachers and mentors don’t understand statistics, then how are they supposed to teach the next group?

          As for incentives, I think it’s similar. Editors and publishers often come from the ranks of writers. If they don’t understand numbers, they aren’t going to reward their staff for good use of numbers.

          The agenda-driven question is interesting. For some topics it could be harder to write quick, attention grabbing articles and headlines with accurate reporting. For example “breast cancer risk for women is 1 out of 8” sounds more apocalyptic than a more accurate “females born today who live to be 85 have a 1 out of 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lives” (in other words, it’s a lifetime incidence rate not a yearly rate).

          On the other hand, greater knowledge of statistics could allow a reporter to create stronger arguments in favor of their particular viewpoint. For example, if I wanted to shift public funding away from breast cancer research to prostate cancer research, I could talk about lifetime cancer rates of 1 in 6 for prostate cancer in males versus 1 in 8 for breast cancer in females. Then, if I was competent but malicious, I could intentionally ignore the fact that prostate cancer survival rates are higher than breast cancer survival rates. Focusing on incidence rates and ignoring survival rates could help promote a shift in funding. Of course, I’ve also managed to intentionally ignore all other forms of cancer in my example.

          In other words, I think statistically competent journalists could still push an agenda if they wanted to. I just don’t think most of them have to ability to do so.

          1. Good question. From the few journalists who I’ve talked too (but NOT a statistically significant sample) it appears that statistical ignorance is passed down from one generation to the next. If journalism teachers and mentors don’t understand statistics, then how are they supposed to teach the next group?

            Lest we forget, ladies and gents, the news is, alas, largely entertainment. Statistics often get in the way of a good narrative.

            Even if a journalist’s thesis is largely correct, too much diving into statistical analisys takes away from the narrative.

          2. Just to be clear, a sample size is not itself the statistically significant aspect of a particular characteritistic, but the combination of sample size, sample standard deviation and the difference in means, no?

            1. Sample size is significant as it pertains to the central limit theorem. So as n approaches infinity you start to get a normal distribution where u=mean and sigma^2/n is the standard deviation.

              You get pretty bell curve with 1.96 on each side being our 95% confidence interval.

              I think. Oh god econometrics flash backs. My melon hurts. I need a drink. 30, just remember 30. Oh god 30. How do you justify 30 again?

              1. Please don’t ask me to deliver the entire lecture but you’re basically on track. Significance is, more or less, based on being outside of that 95% region and whether or not your observed data shows something that could reasonably be random (often defined as within two standard deviations) or not. For example: 52 heads out of a hundred coin flips could easily happen randomly while 82 heads out of a hundred flips is very unlikely to be random.

                As for n=30, it’s a hueristically defined level rather than a mathematically defined point and goes back to pre-computer days when everything was done from tables. You’d don’t magically get a normal distribution at a sample size of 30, but it’s considered close enough in most cases dealing with means.

              2. Sample size is significant as it pertains to the central limit theorem.

                Yes, but t and other tables adjust for sample size. It’s not all z table probabilities.

            2. Certainly, there’s more to significance then sample size. I was just trying to briefly make it clear that my conclusions about cause/effect were anecdotal rather than truly statistical. Most statisticians aren’t opposed to anecdotal information, we just get upset when people confuse anecdote with data.

      3. For example, look at these statistics– if only the U.S. had the kind of take-charge leadership they have in China.

      4. You’re just trying to cover up the fact that, after eight years of Chimpy Katrinaburton’s misrule, half of American make less than the median income.

        1. This is an outrage that cannot stand! And, if elected, I will fix it.

          “Chimpy Katrinaburton” – lulz! Ima steal that one…

        2. More than half of America is below median common sense quotient. 53.7% or so.

      5. This would hold true if newspapers/media were making ignorant mistakes that would unduly lead a reader to random poltical/policy conclusions.

        However, the statistical misuses we read about almost always (and always always in the NYT) lead a reader to believe that solutions presented by progressives would best address the perils illustrated by their statistics.

        The NYT has never framed a story in such a way that would lead a reader to believe that cutting spending and/or cutting taxes could be considered an option, but always seems to imply that cutting spending is terrible and that deficits should only be addressed on the revenue side.

        At some point, when you get the same mistake 100% of the time, you have to realize that it’s not actually a mistake.

    2. I have an acquaintance (a programmer who has a major in mathematics) who calls this the “bathtubs of rope” syndrome.

      According to him, journalists are monstrously stupid when it comes to any of the hard sciences. Combine that with their condescension for their readers and they feel that they have to present basic numbers in a format that their readers will be able to understand.

      Of course their analogies are trivial and usually incorrect. They will try to explain a trillion dollars by explaining how high a stack of a trillion $1 bills would be.

      Hence the bathtub of rope has become in our little circle a universal unit of measure for anything stupid.

      1. I like this universal method for stupid – a bathtub of rope. I tend to concur that journalists are incredibly ignorant of most of the subjects they write about.

  3. But if you don’t give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?

    Maybe that’s not the purpose.

    All snickering about the NYT’s slant aside…

    Nice rant.

  4. “I really don’t mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn’t have passed muster at my college newspaper.”

    Do you actually expect the New York Times, in 2010, to come close to the quality of a college newspaper? You are expecting far too much. Perhaps twenty years ago but they have been trash for quite some time now.

  5. Good one, Matt, especially after listening to Christiane Amanpour parroting the Adinistration announcing the end of the Iraq War, earlier.

    1. We are now just “advisors”. That always works out well.

      1. We advised the shit out of Vietnam!

        1. And now they manufacture the cleaning fluid for Swiffer Wet Jet.

          1. Well, they have all that Agent Orange residue around….

    2. Reason should do an expose on Amanpour.

      1. I second the motion. The motion is now on the table.

      2. No discussion? I ask for a vote. All in favor, signify “aye”.

        1. I say aye, but only if they include naked pictures of lobster girl in the article.

          1. As long as they don’t include naked pictures of Amanpour.

          2. Lobster girl makes everything better. Aye.

        2. What is Amanpour?

          1. Oh yeah sorry…

            I call for discussion.

      3. Christiane Amanpour has lots of left-over street cred with me dating back to the early days of the Clinton administration. She was the first reporter to ever ask a followup question to Bill. He ran on a “we’ll intervene in Bosnia” platform, and a couple of years later, no intervention. She asked him about this and he gave a non-answer. She followed up respectfully, but aggressively to his non-answer. The end result was she got put on unpaid leave for 3 months by CNN.

        She may have been the only journalist to ask President Clinton a tough followup question. This despite a career replete with changing stories and shifting positions.

        It was kind of a throwback moment…. there really isn’t such a thing a tough questioning any more. You get advocacy questioning on shows like Hannity and Oberman, but real “tell me your position” questioning with followup questions to ferret out diversion tactics just doesn’t happen at all.

    3. Don’t you mean Christiane Rubin?

  6. I really don’t mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn’t have passed muster at my college newspaper.

    Liar.

  7. Please note that I’m not asking for any journalistic outlet to agree with my POV on government spending here.

    But unfortunately, that’s probably at the core of the problem, Matt. To report the numbers, to note the relative impact of pensions, to talk about the source of the problem requires that, to some degree, they share your POV on government spending.

    The reason a NYT reporter can gloss over these items is because, from the POV of the NYT reporter, they’re details which are as irrelevant to the story as the median hair color of the state officials who preside over these budgets.

    Governments have budgets. They are what they are. Then there’s this here economic downturn and it’s hitting those budgets. When the…hang on, it’s hard to say this with a straight face… when the problem “is revenue, not spending”, the dollar amount and spending profile is utterly irrelevant. Ie, It’s the revenue, stupid, not the spending.

    1. But if you don’t give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?

      Who said the NYT (or any other media outlet) wants its readers to think – let alone independently and based upon factual constructs.

      I mean, it’s almost like you think the 4th Estate has a role to play other than propagandist to one party or the other (or simply the state regardless of who’s hands it is in).

    2. You assume these reporters are numerate enough to be mendacious. I doubt they understand the problem.

      1. I don’t assume there’s any mendacity at all. I believe that most journalists, especially those of the NYT (although I’d bet you’d see it in any big city daily) is that they operate with this huge blindspot:

        Government budgets are what they are. Full stop. Now let’s talk about all the cuts that have to happen because of this huge hit to revenue.

  8. What’s not to like about The Paper? Keaton, Duvall, Cousin Eddie and George Costanza as a bureaucrat with a gun.

    The Paper of Record, however, I doubt Rahm Emanual would bother to use to wrap fish he mails out. The Gray Lady has long past abandoned any professional pride in favor of overt advocacy.

  9. Matt: One problem is that budget numbers can be deceptive, because pension costs are exploding and populations have increased. Honest accounting would put those pension costs on the year they were accrued, not today.

    It may LOOK like we are spending a lot more on, say, Trenton NJ cops than we were in 1990. But if population has gone up by 10%, and 10% of today’s spending is to cover the retirements of people who long-ago retired, what does this mean?

    1. Honest accounting would put those pension costs on the year they were accrued, not today.

      If they had paid for that spending in the year they were accrued, then that would be a reasonable thing to do. They didn’t.

      But how about a deal, then? We honestly account for all the pension costs we’re piling onto our children and grandchildren in this year’s budget. Not the amount we paid in, which is nearly nothing, but the amount that it will cost our unfortunate descendants.

      1. If you have ever worked in civil service you have heard someone in management say, “It only has to keep working for 20 more years, or until I retire.” That mentality is pervasive and usually starts with the city manager.

        I don’t think most municipalities could account for their guaranteed future commitments on an accrual basis. Their books would collapse. The biggest problem is the other Municipal Budgeting Mantra, “Spend it all and act like it wasn’t enough, no matter what. Or risk a smaller budget next year.”

        1. “It only has to keep working for 20 more years, or until I retire.

          Sounds a lot like Wall Street.

          I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.

          Too bad you guys refuse to admit that this type of agency-related market failure is pervasive in the private sector.

          1. The vast majority of the private sector long ago abandoned defined-benefit plans for precisely this reason. So why are they still so prevalent in the coercive sector, Chad?

            1. If you coined the term “coercive sector”, nice job! That’s a keeper.

          2. One difference being that the liability in the private sector is different than liability in the public sector. You can add motivation to the distinction, sources of cash flow, relative risk, and so on.

            In short your simplistic analogy seems to be too simplistic.

            Not to mention that we bailed out wall street, and we can talk about moral hazard until the cows come home or Pauly Krugnuts stops being a disingenuous cock monger.

            1. Moral hazard is the difference. What incentive do you have to make changes when you know that you can just take more money if need be.

              1. Moral hazard was not the problem. Agency was. And I don’t even think you understand what agency IS.

                Maybe it will help if I put it in terms you deal with in regular life. Ask yourself why dealing with an auto mechanic or a housing contractor sucks so much. The answer is that, unless you happen to have some specialized knowledge, the person you are buying from knows far more about what you are buying than you do, and he has every incentive to not tell you the whole truth. Management of any firm faces the same problem.

                1. As opposed to the government, who legally just take whatever they want. After all, even though I work for the private sector, in reality, I work for the government.

                  If you like the system so well, pay my share too instead of demanding it from me.

                2. I have an auto mechanic that’s been taking care of our fleet of three cars for over 10 years, and a contractor that had good word of mouth who’s now down three major projects on my house. So really, they have every incentive to continue providing honest service at a reasonable price. Apparently I didn’t realize how much this sucks.

            2. One difference being that the liability in the private sector is different than liability in the public sector.

              Well in Chad’s example “wall street” it actually isn’t. you see with Wall street when they fail rather then badly managed firms going tits up bankrupt Chad’s team blue will bail out those shity firms and then blame the free market.

              Chad is simply playing a shell game of misdirection.

              1. Josh, even if the firms go bankrupt, its management does not. There are plenty of Lehman millionaires (and a few billionaires) out there.

                1. “and he has every incentive to not tell you the whole truth.”

                  He does? So word doesn’t get out? So everybody is always getting screwed over all the time? I guess I just look at life different than you. You may say next that some regulation would solve this problem. Whats to stop the regulator from conspiring with the contractor? I mean, we can keep going with this and find all sorts of ways people are being “exploited.” The whole point is that in the long run,(and not so long run) people will become aware of which contractor is being honest and which one isn’t. People aren’t as helpless as you think they are.

                  1. AA, how would I even know if my mechanic exaggerated a problem, “fixed” it, and sent me on my way? How would I know if my contractor used substandard products, when I neither know what he used or what the standards are?

                    You really don’t understand “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”, don’t you? That’s pretty sad, because it is at the core of what happened in the housing market and Wall Street.

                    1. You really don’t understand “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”

                      I guess not. I mean, whats the solution? 2,000 pages of government regulations? Then instead of paying attention of what the contractor is doing, I get to worry about what government is doing. Either way I have to put faith in one of them to do the right thing. But with the contractor, I have a choice to use someone different next time. with government I get one vote and hope things turn out better. If not, I have no choice to use someone different.

                      Thats not what happened in the housing market. I’m not sure why you even brought that up.

                    2. Chad
                      You’re wasting your breath. Economists have been talking about the principal-agent problem in corporations for a long time, but these same folks who scream EKON 101 seem to have missed the entire debate…You see, private sector entities could never have a systematic problem, that’s unpossible!

                    3. Its not a question of whether or not private entities have problems, its which one is better at fixing them: government bureaucrats or private entities. So, which debate did we miss?

                    4. So sayeth the Poli-Scientist.

                    5. Is this your new hobbyhorse?

                      It’s better than when you couldn’t finish a post without an epic faceplant, I’ll give you that.

      2. Actually, Some Guy, I think that all public workers should be switched to defined-contribution (401k-style) plans. The temptation for politicians to cheat the numbers is just too great when they deal with traditional pensions.

        I have never been a defender of unions, public or private.

        1. Chad has suggested something that most people here can probably agree with. This is truly a historical moment.

          1. Huzzah!

          2. Dare I say +1 for Chad.

          3. Not historical; historic.

            Don’t get mad.

            1. Ah, but is it “a historical” or “an historical”?

              1. Hungarian is so much simpler!

  10. Long ago ? basically when I started writing for the Times ? I decided that I would judge the character of politicians by what they say about policy, not how they come across in person. This led me to conclude that George W. Bush was dishonest and dangerous back when everyone was talking about how charming and reasonable he was. It led me to conclude that Colin Powell couldn’t be trusted, back when everyone said his UN speech clinched the case for war. It led me to conclude that John McCain was unprincipled and self-centered, back when everyone said he was a deeply principled maverick. And yes, it led me to conclude that Barack Obama was a good man, but far less progressive than his enthusiastic supporters imagined.

    1. Pauly Krugnuts. You sly devil you.

    2. What they say about policy is also more important than, say, the efficacy, morality and constitutionality of said policy.

      Why does Krugman talk? It’s hard to tell someone so consistently wrong about economic policy to stick to econ bullshit, but the only thing worse than his policy suggestions are his blowhard political pronouncements.

      I get the feeling before he retires for the evening, he spends a few minutes repeating “I hate myself” in front of his bathroom mirror. It’s okay, Paul, I hate you too.

    3. So it led him to believe that the crooks he likes are principled and the crooks he does not like are unprincipled.

    4. Since Obama is basically following Bush policy (a bit bigger in some areas, smaller in others) does this mean that Bush was dangerously carrying out correct policies or that Obama is honestly carrying out bad polices?

      1. Brilliant question +100

  11. Paul Ryan is a poopyhead.

    1. And I beat up his dad, too.

  12. What the christ is going on with the Friday the 13th picture? Is it to coincide with the “budget slashing” bit?

  13. Took me all of about 7 minutes to read the Wash Post this glorious Sunday morning (Yglesias was the only memorable piece).

    Given that the economy is probably going to suck for years to come, I look forward to navel-gazing articles like “budget cutbacks: impact on the psyche”.

    Internment camps for fureigners, anyone?

  14. “I really don’t mean to sound like a dick when I say that this kind of basic numerical avoidance wouldn’t have passed muster at my college newspaper.”

    It wouldn’t have passed muster at my high school’s newspaper. I know this for a fact.

  15. Tax the rich, spend, spend, spend, saving is causing the recession, spend, spend, spend.

    1. Yes, yes, truly, yes!

      1. Release My Second Chakra!!!

        1. Mr Gore sir, we’re still cleaning up after the first one.

  16. Any discussion of the Civil Service inevitably reminds me of the British show, “Yes, Minister”, and it’s sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister”.’

    Basically, the efforts of politicians to effect the status quo, let alone enact any cuts in the Civil Service, will always be stymied by the Civil Servants, who, having been there longer than the politicians they serve, feel entitled to their jobs and salaries.

    It also demonstrates in places that, because the Civil Service has been in place longer than the politicians they serve, they tend to be better at working the press to their advantage.

    1. Indeed. But the proper term is “civil master”, lobster head.

  17. Doom and gloom… D-o-o-m and gl-o-om… I told you that this economy could only bring you doom and gloom, gloom and doom.

  18. That makes a lot of sense you think about it.

    –Lou–

    someurl.cn.tc

    1. Dammit Lou, you are falling well short of expectations. If you are this cavalier with your spamming, how can we believe that you take privacy any more seriously?

      1. Anon-bot sure does love to parody himself.

  19. if you’re going to wrap even a heavily anecdotal feature around what is essentially a number …, you would find room within 2,350 words to, I dunno, INCLUDE THE GODDAMNED NUMBER.

    Saturday’s issue featured a front-page article on state and local governments under the headline “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On.” An avid reader has pointed out that the article did not mention the total budget for various governmental units. The New York Times stands by its omission.

    1. So, we can just use the “Highlighted” comments to show how we favor liberal comments by a 10-1 ratio, right?

      I mean, no one will notice that, right?

  20. But if you don’t give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation about, say, which elements of state and local budgets have been swelling in recent years even while the quality of services has not swelled along for the ride?

    What on Earth makes you think the NYTs wants people having intelligent conversations about any of these things? They’re a mouthpeice, part of the coordinated effort to keep people dumbed down and easy to rule.

  21. Can We at Least Have Some Elementary Journalism in Budget-Cut Scare Stories?

    No, I’m afraid not; old-fashioned journalism is virtually dead today, what we have in its place is “journolism”.

  22. Oh wow, thats way cool dude.

    Lou
    http://www.web-privacy.at.tc

    1. Doesn’t it make sense if you think about it?

  23. I don’t think this is unique to the NYT or novel to journalism in general.

    Scare stories have been with us since the Cato the Elder started in on Carthago esse delenda (and probably before that.)

    The only remedy is to present the facts. Again and again and again, the facts.

    1. Carthago delenda est, vel, Ceterum autem censeo, Carthaginem esse delendam. I also prefer the spelling “Karthago” – aside from Kalendae, it’s the only (classical) Latin word with a “K.”

  24. I feel that the author has hit the nail on the head about inadequate reporting. Such figures reported in the mentioned article such as the $110 million in stimulus money for Hawaii or how Clayton County’s cutting of public transport strands 8400 riders daily, simply isn’t enough. The media needs to provide more numeric statistics in its articles to provide perspective on how local/state governments are cutting services as opposed to the past 5 or 10 years ago. In the New York Times’ article the author was referring to, there were only abstract numbers that didn’t connect the ideas coherently. One example is in the part where the article mentions Colorado Springs’ cutting of its police force, the author could have mentioned numbers that reflected if the trend in smaller crime (burglaries, robbery etc.) were increasing/decreasing and other facts. I agree with the author that this perspective is important because the proper purpose of reporting is to inform not to confuse readers. Therefore the author is right in demanding that specific numbers in terms of budgets and cuts be provided in relation to the context of events.

  25. I find this kind of thing so frustrating. Here at the local level there have been many (almost every day) stories on the school funding “crisis.” In every one there is discussion of what terrible things may happen if these “drastic” cuts are implemented: teachers laid off, class sizes increasing, PE and sports and music and art and school days cut. But one thing you will never find is any hint at how school spending this year will compare to say 5 or 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. How can a journalist get away with such blatant incompetence? Facts without context are trivia, which is largely what newspapers have been reduced to disseminating.

    The question of incompetence versus bias is at least worth considering. One wonders if the reality was that school funding had been decreasing, instead of exploding as it has over the last 30-40 years, would that fact not make the papers? I have a hard time believing that they would make such an omission.

    Perhaps most frustrating of all is the pattern of behavior. Every time there is any slight hiccup in the never-ending upward march of real education spending the front page is littered with stories about more cuts in funding. This leads many people to believe that education funding has actually been slashed over the decades when precisely the opposite is true. How is it considered anything but gross malpractice when reporting just “the facts” leads to a perception that is not only incorrect, but diametrically opposed to the truth?

    1. I completely agree with you on school funding. I don’t agree that the reason it is reported the way it is is due to any bias.

      Almost all news stories today rely heavily on press releases by the parties being reported on. The school district spends a lot of money providing press releases with suitably manipulated numbers. The journalists simply regurgitate those numbers.

      Unfortunately for the taxpayers, but no one is spending lots of time and energy putting together opposing numbers or press releases. And even if some guy did spend his free time doing so, his analysis wouldn’t be “trusted” by the journalists as much as the school district’s numbers would be.

      Someone upthread mentioned that it is wiser to attribute shoddy journalism to incompetence rather than malice. I agree, but would also throw in laziness in addition to incompetence.

  26. Yes, the nyt sucks, but just about as badly as most news-rags.
    The only difference is that the same factoids are presented under the claim of “The Newspaper of Record” and some people believe that.

  27. Carthago delenda est, vel, Ceterum autem censeo, Carthaginem esse delendam. I also prefer the spelling “Karthago” – aside from Kalendae, it’s the only (classical) Latin word with a “K.”

  28. The pensions really aren’t the big problem with Hawaii’s budget, it’s more that the unions run the fucking state legislature, and the legislators are big-spending liberals with an inability to prioritize or make the deep cuts in unionized public workers needed to balance the budget.

    The furlough problem came down to the governor blinking in negotiations with the statewide public teachers union, and instead of cutting all the worthless administrators and giving the teachers a pay cut, and chopping selected low-priority staff, she took what seemed to be the path of least resistance and instituted across-the-board furloughs. Then the public got pissed off about the kids having only 167 school days in the years, and the shit hit the fan.

    1. Sot it is Michigan with a tropical climate.

    2. “the unions run the fucking state legislature”

      Comedy gold!

      1. Can you cite that. Oh never mind I’ll look up contributions myself since they serve as a decent proxy. Right? I mean we spent pages listening to you postulate how companies contributing will ruin us all so it has to be a decent proxy.

        So lets see who contributed to Hawaii’s assembly.

        http://www.followthemoney.org/…..08&f=H

        It looks like two unions, public sector unions and trade unions contributed two times as much as the nest two contributors, lawyers and real estate, if you disregard the money people spent on themselves. I’d say that’s pretty good evidence that the assembly is beholden to unions.

        I’d say it’s more comedy pewter than gold.

        1. I meant unions more than 2 times the next major contributor, not the combination of the next two. so unions 2X real estate. and still 50% more than the next two real estate and lawyers.

  29. But if you don’t give readers even that much information to decide by themselves, how do you expect them to even begin to have an intelligent conversation…

    Well, there’s your problem.

  30. Yeah, but check out that masthead, eh? Screams venerable, don’t it?

  31. Do you really think anyone who reads the NYT in 2010 wants to decide for themselves? They’re just looking for the official prescription of what they should believe.

  32. >> sure, we learn that Colorado Springs “shut off a third of its 24,512 streetlights this winter to save $1.2 million on electricity,”

    ………. and i haven’t noticed ANY issue from the reduction is street lighting. Too bad we haven’t gotten even a letter of thanks from the ‘Dark Skies’ movement !

  33. I just wanted to congratulate you on actually wading through that bullshit factory also known as the NYTimes. You are a stronger man than I.

  34. Numbers? What do you want from me? I’m a journalist, dammit, not a numerologist.

  35. It’s not the journalists’ fault: it’s the people who write the press releases journalists present as news who don’t include the numbers.

  36. The readers are too stupid to understand, ya know, numbers.

    It might inform them instead of influence them.

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