Federal budgets are a policy geek's playground but a political reporter's nightmare. How can something so voluminous, so complex and amorphous, ever be summarized in a 90-second TV standup or an 800-word news story? Many reporters would rather cover cat-fighting personalities and hyper-plotting political consultants than crunch a single number. For them, accuracy is less important than following the technical argot of the pack.
Take the new tax-cut bill, which President Bush signed and has been assigned an arbitrary face value. "Bush Signs $350 Billion Tax Cut," read the front page of The Washington Post. It's become the standard line in media and political circles to add a prefix to Bush tax cuts -- to use something as gauzy and impossible to predict as a 10-year fiscal forecast. It's as factually sound as a newspaper previewing "Finding Nemo" with the headline "Disney Releases Billion-Grossing Fish Cartoon."
No one wants to make fiscal policy in the trillions without some crystal ball of estimation. Legislators and their constituents need some projections to help them make decisions. These numbers should not be confused with facts. They're estimates, not reality. They're as statistically reliable as guessing next year's weather. Journalists should know this.
But the elevation of estimates into hard fact isn't just a function of professional laziness among journalists. It's a subtle, but very widespread form of media distortion. Every Bush tax-cut proposal since he was a candidate has been larded with estimate prefixes.
Here's what's journalistically shaky about these new estimates:
1. Relative Size. Most stories omitted that the $350 billion figure is spread out over a decade, which allows them to take something rather fiscally minuscule and make it look monstrous. That's nothing new. In a 2001 study of network tax cut stories on ABC, CBS and NBC from Jan. 20 to March 31, 2001, the Media Research Center's Rich Noyes found that NBC weekend anchor John Seigenthaler was the only correspondent over those months to (once) describe "the president's plan to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years."
How big was it as a percentage of the fiscal whole? At that time, the government estimated that federal revenues would total about $28 trillion in that 10-year period -- meaning that the total tax cut was estimated at less than 6 percent of the total anticipated revenue.