Jan 1 2010


Wasteful Stimulus—or Simulated Waste?

ABC’s Good Morning America (8/3/10) aired a so-called “exclusive” that unveiled a list of supposedly wasteful stimulus projects compiled by two Republican senators. Correspondent Jonathan Karl led off his segment by telling viewers that half a million dollars went to fix up a visitors center near Mount St. Helens that was permanently closed. Gotcha! Except that Karl then acknowledges that the government is fixing up the center so it can sell it. That’s a crucial bit of context that makes the spending sound actually pretty reasonable.

But Karl went on to name other examples without any context at all. He mocked the stimulus bill for including “nearly $1 million for the California Academy of Sciences to study exotic ants.” That’s funny, because animals are funny, especially bugs. But Karl might have mentioned that exotic insects are a major threat to agriculture, which is a $36 billion industry in the state of California.

Jonathan Karl, it should be noted, is an alum of the Collegiate Network fellowship program, which places young conservatives in more mainstream outlets in an effort to move the news business to the right. That helps explain a story like this, or another story he did on July 14 that revealed that about one out of every 5,600 stimulus dollars was being spent on signs advertising that projects were paid for with stimulus money. Those signs have given the public a lot more accurate information about the stimulus than Karl’s reporting has.

To Each According to His Needs

“Federal Workers Earning Double Their Private Counterparts” was the headline on USA Today’s August 10 lead story. Well, that sounds unfair—some workers earn twice as much as their counterparts just because they work for the federal government? How could readers help but agree with the quote from the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute: “Can’t we now all agree that federal workers are overpaid and do something about it?”

Until, that is, you get to the second-to-last paragraph, which reveals: “USA Today reported in March that the federal government pays an average of 20 percent more than private firms for comparable occupations. The analysis did not consider differences in experience and education.”

So when you look at “comparable occupations”—and don’t just put all federal workers up against all private workers—you don’t get a 100 percent difference, you get a 20 percent difference. And that’s without adjusting for differences in experience and education, which you have to do if you want to make an apples-to-apples comparison. When you do that, and compare federal workers to their actual private counterparts—is there any difference in pay? USA Today doesn’t say.

‘Debating’ Democracy With Just One Side

The Los Angeles Times (8/13/10) reported that the “moral argument” over California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriages, “has morphed into a debate over the democratic process and the propriety of judges overturning laws approved by voters.”

It’s strange, then, that an article on this “debate” would feature only viewpoints from one side—the side that says, “The people voted on it and it should be left alone.” All five of the sources quoted by reporter Mike Anton took this position. (There was also a two-word quotation from Judge Vaughan Walker’s ruling: “moral disapproval.”)

Anton did note that the “tension between ‘majority rule’ and a Constitution designed to protect the rights of individuals against the majority” is “one of the oldest conflicts in the nation.” Given that, wouldn’t it make sense to find someone to take issue with his sources’ assertions that “in a democracy, the people decide”? Someone, in other words, to take the pro-Constitution side?

NYT’s Venezuelan Numbers Game

“Venezuela, More Deadly Than Iraq,” was how the New York Times (NYTimes.com, 8/22/10) headlined reporter Simon Romero’s assertion, “In Iraq, a country with about the same population as Venezuela, there were 4,644 civilian deaths from violence in 2009, according to Iraq Body Count; in Venezuela that year, the number of murders climbed above 16,000.”

This comparison has so many problems, it’s beyond apples-to-oranges—it’s more like apples-to-alligators. The Iraq Body Count project tallies violent deaths that are reported by foreign media; compared to more scientific surveys of violence in Iraq, it’s been found to underestimate the total number of deaths by a factor of three or more. And it’s a measure of civilian deaths—much of the deadly violence associated with Iraq involves combatants, who are not included in the Body Count number. Members of drug gangs and other armed groups who kill each other in Venezuela, on the other hand, are included in the Venezuelan statistics.

When analyst Robert Naiman (Huffington Post, 8/24/10) pointed out these and other problems with the comparison in the New York Times, the paper passed the buck. A Times editor told Naiman that Romero did not “declare the Iraq Body Count correct; he simply used an official figure, even if one subject to debate, to make a comparison with the violence in Venezuela.” Of course, Iraq Body Count is not an official figure—it’s a non-governmental group monitoring the Iraq conflict. But apparently, for the New York Times, if a statistic serves the official agenda of making Venezuela look bad—then it’s official.