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Media Mangle

Reporters’ fuzzy math

CNN, WaPo and NYT reporters can’t tell a budget cut from an increase

Sep. 4th, 2008
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RALEIGH — I wrote the other day about two reporters for the Politico Web site breaking a rule you should learn in Journalism 101. Now, two other news outlets have made the kind of mistake that, in a normal world, would send a beginning reporter to duty on the nighttime obit desk.

Yesterday, Paul Kane of The Washington Post reported that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had “slashed funding for teen moms.” Kane based his story on a page from Alaska’s budget, which had hand-written line-item changes showing the amount going to Covenant House had been changed from $5 million to $3.9 million.

You can probably tell where this is going. It turns out that $5 million is the highball request for Covenant House and the $3.9 million is what Palin felt the agency deserved. As it happens, the $3.9 million actually represented a three-fold increase over the previous year. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “slash” in the budget.

The Washington Post has not yet corrected this mistake, which resulted in The New York Times running the same mistake today.

As an editor for many years, I can tell you that reporters are notoriously poor at math, but this is getting ridiculous. It’s happened again.

CNN’s Soledad O’Brien reported that Palin had cut the budget for special needs children by 62 percent. Was it her intrepid reporting that uncovered that “tip”? No, it was taken from a far-left Web site, which has apparently become the mainstream media’s new source for story ideas.

But did Palin really "cut" the budget, as O’Brien alleges? You guessed it:

This charge is based on looking at the budget for Alaska's Special Education Service Agency for 2007-2009. In fact, the December 2006 budget document that they cite would have been prepared by the outgoing administration — that of Republican Frank Murkowski, whom Palin defeated.

What's gone unmentioned is that the Palin signed into law a dramatic reform of the state's education financing system that equalizes aid to rural and urban districts, while significantly increasing funding for special needs students.

The reforms, in fact, increase spending for special needs children by 175 percent. As with the Covenant House, there was no “cut” or “slash.” There was a healthy increase.

This kind of fuzzy math by reporters is nothing new.

When I worked for a governor 30 years ago, activists accused him of “cutting” the welfare budget because he had reduced the outrageous, pie-in-the-sky request by the department head to a reasonable level. The media, fed by activists and the irresponsible department head, played this as a massive cut in welfare spending, even though the increase was double digits. People actually marched on the capitol.

When I confronted the math-challenged reporters, their defense was: “But it is a cut in the request, so the story is accurate.” Some things never change.

UPDATE: Here's an example of how one shoddy reporting mistake can ricochet around the world. The UK Mirror has a story titled "Is she the worst running mate in history?" (Maybe the Mirror staff didn't watch Palin's speech last night, which wowed even her critics and garnered more than 37 million TV viewers.) Here's what they wrote:
But other expectant teenagers in her situation will be badly affected by legislation passed by the Alaskan governor back in April.

Despite becoming a surprise grandmother herself, Palin agreed to reduce funding for Covenant House Alaska by more than 20 per cent, from $5million to $3.9m.

The rest of the Mirror story is a lists of left-blog charges with an irresponsible lack of meaningful context, the identical approach used by Us Weekly to give a completely biased view of the VP candidate.

And where is all this biased reporting getting the media? Read the numbers and weep, MSM.

MORE: The Washington Monthly, which was also victimized by the lefty blogs' take on the special needs programs budget, has retracted its story and apologized:
As you can see if you look at the list of component budgets here (2007) and here (2009), funding for the Alaska Challenge Youth Academy was broken out into its own budget category, which accounts for the drop in funding for the original item. I regret the error.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper Carolina Journal.