Read all about it... or not

Posted: Dec 02, 2005 12:05 AM

Right now, somebody is writing an obituary for your local newspaper. However, if it’s in the paper, fewer people than ever will read it. All but two of the 20 largest newspapers lost circulation during the six months that ended in September, and average weekday circulation for all papers fell 2.6 percent.

What explains this drop? Well, sometimes reading the newspaper can be informative, even enlightening. But all too often newspapers fall short of their potential.

As an example from the heartland, consider the lead story in the Nov. 25 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. “Proposed budget cuts could hurt New York’s needy,” the paper trumpets, with a banner headline. That’s true, in the same way it would be true to say, “Giant meteor strike could end life on earth” or “Picking winning lottery numbers could be worth millions.” With the word “could,” virtually anything is possible.

But the truth is more mundane. Unfortunately, there are no budget cuts coming. The congressional bill in question story would indeed bring about $53.9 billion in budget savings over the next five years. But it would do that by cutting the rate of growth in programs including Medicaid and food stamps -- not by actually cutting spending on the programs.

And it’s past time to slow the growth of entitlements. Research from The Heritage Foundation shows that since 2000, mandatory federal spending is up 28 percent. Federal funding for Medicaid (which also gets money from states and local governments) is up 56 percent. And food stamps have been especially well financed, with 78 percent growth. Even if the House bill described by the newspaper were to be approved, Medicaid spending over the next five years would still climb by 39 percent.

Instead of wringing our hands over that supposed cut, it would make more sense to ask our lawmakers, “If you can’t trim the growth of spending by even this tiny amount, how are you ever going to manage to balance the federal budget?”  The long-term prospects for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are bleak -- Uncle Sam has promised to fork over tens of trillions of dollars to Americans, more money than most of us can even conceive of. But lawmakers haven’t set anything aside to pay for those promises.

Unless we trim spending and reform the way entitlement programs work, the government will eventually have to raise taxes to European levels or back away from its promises. Now, there are two outcomes that would “hurt New York’s needy.”

Sadly, when lawmakers have attempted to reform entitlements, they’ve only made a bad situation worse. Many Thanksgiving tables were surely dominated this year by talk about the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, known as Part D.

As The Syracuse Post-Standard put it in a front page story the next day, “Medicare drug plan counseling a ‘nightmare’.” The story noted that area residents have more than 45 programs to choose from, and added that county workers will not be able to walk seniors through the sign-up process, possibly because they didn’t understand it themselves.

Carmella Mulroy-Degenhart of the Onondaga County Department of Aging and Youth (wonder if there’s a separate division for “teens and middle age?”) told the paper she and her assistant are answering more than 50 calls a day about the benefit, and added, “We couldn’t spend an hour finding a plan for every one of them.”

 This isn’t to say that these citizens don’t deserve choice; they do. But the sad fact is that three-quarters of retirees already had some sort of prescription drug coverage before the government stepped in to say, “we’re here to help.” Many of these people rightly fear they’ll lose this private coverage and end up stuck with the one-size-fits-all government plan. Lawmakers ought to delay Part D and instead design a program that will target help only to those who really need it, so those seniors who are happy with their current coverage can keep it.

The story most newspapers are ignoring is that Americans are doing better than ever.

Note that the frightening story about budget “cuts” ran on “Black Friday,” a day known for booming retail sales. By all reports, this year consumer spending is at its highest level ever. People are doing well enough to afford plenty of iPods and Xboxes. Unemployment is low, and in spite of a devastating hurricane season, GDP grew 4.3 percent in the third quarter. The economy is soaring, but you seldom read about that on the front page.

While most journalists are liberal themselves, they’re not supposed to project their liberalism into their news coverage. They’re failing. Maybe that’s why there doesn’t seem to be much future in newspapering. And why so few people seem to care.