“Objective” Journalism

I noticed this amazingly flawed story in the New York Times on Sunday, and was pleased to see its been caught around the blogosphere.  The lede:

3 Candidates With 3 Financial Plans, but One Deficit

Republican and Democratic presidential candidates differ strikingly in
their approaches to taxes and spending, but their fiscal plans have at
least one thing in common: each could significantly swell the budget
deficit and increase the national debt by trillions of dollars,
according to tax and budget experts.

Some various sharp commentary: Matt Yglesias offers some nice numerical perspective:

Later in the article we find out that McCain's proposals “if enacted
as proposed, would add at least $5.7 trillion to the national debt over
the next decade.” Conversely, “even taking into account that there are
some differences between the proposals by Senators Hillary Rodham
Clinton and Barack Obama, the impact of either on the deficit would be
less than one-third that of the McCain plan.” Let's do some math.
McCain's plans will at “at least $5.7 trillion” whereas the Democratic
plans will add “less than” $1.9 trillion to the deficit. The difference
between them, in short, is at least $3.8 trillion.

That, obviously, is a huge difference — larger than the
net worth of Bill Gates or the GDP of Italy. There's no grounds for
saying that two plans' costs have something “in common” when they
differ in cost by at least $3.8 trillion, but to understand this you
need to understand what you're talking about. After all, if one
candidate was offering budget-busting on the Democratic scale, and
another candidate was offering $2 trillion in deficit reduction nobody
would have trouble distinguishing between the budget hawk and the
deficit spender. But the difference in magnitude is the same in either

TNR's Jonathan Cohn points out how this ultimately comes down to wrong-headed journalistic values:

Clinton and Obama can probably achieve
most of their goals
either by trimming (rather than ditching) some proposals, finding a
politically acceptable way to raise a few taxes, or letting the deficit
grow at a moderate rate. (Or, most likely, some combination of the
three.) McCain, by contrast, is
going to have to jettison some of his ideas altogether. Either he'll
have to let go of those tax cuts or he'll have to let the deficit

This is,
arguably, a very important distinction–one about which the voters
should know, as it says a lot about the candidates' honesty and ability
to govern. The Times deserves great credit for highlighting it.

I suspect many readers of the Sunday Times didn't grasp this distinction. In fact, I suspect many came away with the
very opposite impression about the candidates–i.e., that they're all equally irresponsible…

It's just one article, of course, but it's also
indicative of a broader phenomenon in campaign coverage: Journalists
trying so hard to seem even-handed that they end up distorting reality.
I have no idea whether it was the reporters or editors who chose to
frame this particular story this way. Either way, though, it was a poor, if all too typical, decision.

I do think this is largely a typical example of the media's false objectivity, but I also suspect that, more often than not, such examples will end up playing in John McCain's favor.  As the 2000 campaign so clearly demonstrated, the more you lie with the numbers, the more you benefit when the media pretends your whoppers are equivalent to the other guy's mild exaggerations. 

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