Daniel Drezner Intervenes Intellectually Outside His Home Area of Expertise
Rasky-DeLong "Covering the Economy": Discussion Notes: Week of January 24

Rasky-DeLong "Covering the Economy": Discussion Notes: Week of January 17

Covering the Economy: Week of January 17: Discussion Notes:

We thought about Robert Pear:

"Senate Passes Budget With Benefit Cuts and Oil Drilling." By ROBERT PEAR; CARL HULSE CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FOR THIS ARTICLE. November 4, 2005 http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F00B11FB3C5A0C778CDDA80994DD404482

The Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a sweeping five-year plan to trim a variety of federal benefit programs and to allow drilling for oil and natural gas in a wilderness area of Alaska, increasing the chances that the energy industry and Alaska officials will achieve a long-sought goal. The budget bill, the most ambitious effort to curb federal spending in eight years, was approved by a vote of 52 to 47. Five Republicans opposed the measure; two Democrats voted for it. Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said, "This bill is a reflection of the Republican Congress's commitment to pursue a path of fiscal responsibility." It will, Mr. Gregg said, reduce the deficit and save roughly $35 billion over the next five years...

Susan Rasky calls this an excellent example of a standard New York Times lead. There is a lot of information in here. There is no excessive jargon. There is nothing that is not true.

Brad DeLong says: not so.

First, the lead lacks scale variables. Is it more important to know that the plan saves $35 billion, or that the plan saves 0.3% of federal spending, or that the plan saves 0.06% of GDP? Is it more important to know that the plan saves $35 billion, or that it saves $27 per person per year in the context of the federal government's spending $9,000 per person per year?

There is also the question: "What's the narrative?" The narrative that Pear's lead supports is:

  • Judd Gregg works very hard, and passes through the Senate a seeping, ambitious effort to curb federal spending (and open the Alaska NWR to drilling) that demonstrates the Republican Congress's commitment to fiscal responsibility.

But ten years ago--when the economy was half its size--five-year deficit reduction packages had numbers like $500 billion attached to them. Relative to the size of the economy, Judd Gregg's effort is only 1/30 as large as the deficit-reduction measures of 1993 or 1990. And Judd Gregg's $35 billion spending cut was to be followed a week or so later by a $70 billion tax cut. In a normal year the two bills would be combined into one. This year the Reconciliation Bill was divided into two by the Republican leadership in the hope that passing the spending cuts first would get, well, would get stories like Robert Pear's that got Republicans credit for fiscal responsibility.

The narrative that Pear's lead support is--no ifs and buts about it--false. Here are three alternative true narratives:

  • Nothing happens as a result of the Reconciliation process this year: spending cuts of $27 per capita per year and tax cuts of $54 per capita per year in the context of a federal government that spends $9,000 per capita per year and taxes $7,500 per capita per year.
  • Republicans pull a procedural trick to try to fool reporters into writing stories that give them credit for fiscal responsibility--and it works.
  • Judd Gregg labors like a mountain to convince his fellow Republicans to reduce the deficit, but when the dust clears the mountain has birthed a mouse: the "sweeping five-year plan," the "most ambitious effort... in eight years," is of a trivial and insignificant magnitude.

Robert Pear is an excellent reporter--as Dan Froomkin points out in email, not even the crankiest and pickiest economist has complaints about the substance of his coverage of health care issues, which are his home base. So why does he write a story whose lead leaves Brad DeLong frothing at the mouth when he writes about the budget?

Possible answers:

  • If Robert Pear is going to cover the federal budget in the long-run--cover this beat--he needs to keep Senate Budget Chair Judd Gregg happy. Beat reporters have to be polite. (But is it really the case that Robert Pear needs Judd Gregg more than Judd Gregg needs Robert Pear?
  • Robert Pear doesn't cover the federal budget on a regular enough basis for his sources to fear him, so they tell him pleasing lies: the Republicans that this is significant progress on deficit reduction; the Democrats that the Medicaid benefit cuts are horrifying large and truly devastating.
  • The New York Times doesn't have a big enough budget bench--if Robert Pear were writing for the Wall Street Journal news pages, he would have an enormous amount of backup and institutional memory at his disposal. At the New York Times he doesn't--after all the New York Times reporter who covered the Reagan budgets is... sitting right here.
  • Robert Pear hasn't taken Stan Collender http://nationaljournal.com/members/buzz/2006/budget/ out to lunch enough times. Two lunches with Stan Collender at Signatures, and Pear would have nothing to fear when he is handed a budget story to write.

Next time: sources of data and information; how journalists can arm themselves against writing stories whose leads carry untrue narratives. Things to read: