The Persistence of Horrible Economic Reporting: They Just Don’t Care

Last month, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Chuck Todd responded to a question about whether he was surprised that the Trump administration would deliberately spread misinformation (i.e. lie):

“I fully admit, listening to you ask that question now, and me giving you the honest answer of, yeah, I guess I really believed they wouldn’t do this. Just so absurdly naive in hindsight.”

This answer had to have people all over the country banging their heads against the wall. Chuck Todd is the host of Meet the Press, the country’s most widely watched news interview show. He also regularly appears as a commentator on MSNBC. 

After the Trump administration has engaged in a systematic pattern of lying on a wide range of issues, it is truly incredible that Chuck Todd would be telling us that he just came to realize this fact now. (Many of the lies, including Kellyanne Conway’s famous “alternative facts” were told right to Todd’s face on Meet the Press.) 

This is a bit like the lead announcer at Super Bowl games over the last decade saying that he just discovered that the teams were trying to get the ball into the opposing team’s end zone. The big question in that case, as it is with Todd, is whether it is worse that they could be so astonishing ignorant over a prolonged period of time or that they apparently see nothing wrong with admitting it now.

While honesty should be applauded, Todd effectively said in this interview that he has totally failed in his job. If he didn’t recognize that Trump and his supporters were making up nonsense to advance their agenda, he was not acting as a serious reporter. 

When most workers completely mess up on their job (e.g. the custodian who doesn’t clean the toilets or the dishwasher who breaks all the dishes) they face serious consequences, like getting fired. That does not appear to be the case with Chuck Todd. In all probability he will continue in his role with Meet the Press as though nothing had happened.

This raises the obvious question, if someone at the top of journalism profession can completely fail in their job for three years, and face no consequences, what does this say about the profession? Obviously NBC, Mr. Todd’s employer, doesn’t care at all that, by his own admission, he has completely failed in his responsibility to accurately inform his audience over the last three years. He has assisted the Trump administration and Republicans more generally in passing along misinformation to the public, and NBC is just fine with that.

I’ve been following economic reporting closely for decades, and I can’t say that I am surprised. While there are some very good economic reporters out there (far more today than two decades ago), it is clear that the major news outlets care very little about accurately informing their audience about the economy.

The most blatant example of this is their persistent refusal to put huge numbers, especially budget numbers, in a context that makes them understandable to their audience. When a news article tells readers that a transportation bill calls for spending $196 billion over six years, it is essentially providing no information at all. 

Almost none of the readers of even the high end papers, like the New York Times or Washington Post, have any idea how much money $196 billion is over six years. It would likely mean the same to them if they added a zero or subtracted a zero. And of course much of the time they don’t even give the number of years over which a specific spending or tax item is projected to occur. It would be a relatively simple matter if reporters took two seconds to put the numbers in a context that would make them understandable to most of their audience, such as expressing them as a share of the total budget or as a per person expenditure.

I recall celebrating a big victory on this front back in 2013. I had been pounding on this point endlessly in Beat the Press, but that fall Just Foreign Policy and Media Matters joined the battle with a petition drive directed towards Margaret Sullivan, who was at the time the Public Editor of the New York Times

Sullivan responded with a column in which she agreed with us 100 percent. She acknowledged that almost none of the NYT’s readers had any understanding of what these really big numbers meant. She even got buy-in from David Leonhardt, who was the paper’s Washington editor at the time. Leonhardt commented that the paper might as well just write “really big number,” since the actual number that appeared in print was almost meaningless to everyone who saw it.

I assumed that Sullivan’s article, coupled with Leonhardt’s whole-hearted agreement, meant that the NYT would change its practices and insist that news articles make some effort to put big numbers in a context where they would be meaningful to most of their readers. Given the NYT’s standing as the country’s preeminent newspaper, I expected that this change in practice would filter down to other new outlets, so that reporters would feel an obligation to put these huge numbers in some context that would make them meaningful to their audience.

I was wrong. Nothing changed at the NYT or anywhere else. As a result, a practice that no one can defend persists. This failure contributes to the widespread confusion about the budget with most people (not just racists) enormously over-estimating the share of the budget that goes to anti-poverty programs like food stamps and TANF. Needless to say, it becomes more difficult to argue for the food stamp budget, TANF, or other anti-poverty programs if people think that more than a third of the budget is already going to anti-poverty programs, as opposed to 5-6 percent. 

In fact, the media seem to have gone the other way in freely tossing around massive numbers with no context whatsoever, often even failing to mention the number of years involved. The Washington Post gave us an absolute orgy of this sort of reporting last month when it reported on the spending plans of the various Democratic candidates for president. It threw around figures in the trillions and tens of trillions, often not being clear on the relevant time frame. The article would have been every bit as informative if it just used Leonhardt’s “really big number” phrase in place of the actual numbers. 

In fact, that seemed to be the main point of the piece. The Washington Post wanted to tell readers that the Democratic presidential candidates wanted to spend lots of money. And of course, this was in a news story, not an opinion piece.

Anyhow, I use the numbers in context item as my canary in the coal mine, for the simple reason that it is not a debatable issue. No one thinks that anyone, except a tiny number of budget wonks, has any idea what the billions and trillions that appear in these budget articles mean. Yet the practice of using these numbers without any context persists.

Given that reality, how can we hope to make economics reporters more responsible in other areas where they may be at least a debatable opposing position? In this context, I’ll mention my new year’s resolution to get a reporter at a major news outlet to recognize that government-granted patent and copyright monopolies are implicit government debt. The idea is that the government pays for things, like innovation and creative work, by granting these monopolies. This is an alternative to direct spending.

While the direct spending for these purposes is added directly to the deficit and debt, the cost to the country of the patent and copyright monopolies granted by the government are ignored. These costs are enormous. In the case of prescription drugs alone the gap, between what we pay for patent-protected drugs versus their free market price, is close to $400 billion a year, roughly 9.0 percent of federal spending. 

Anyhow, it makes zero sense to get all excited about the debt burden that we are passing on to our kids, while ignoring the huge amounts of money that they will be paying in patent and copyright rents, especially since the latter dwarfs the debt service paid each year. Responsible reporters would be taking note of this massive burden created by the government.

But how can we change economic reporting? The lesson from the Chuck Todd incident, as well as the follow-up from the Margaret Sullivan piece, is that those on top just don’t care. Pointing out to the powers that be at NBC, the New York Times, or any other major media outlet that they are doing a bad job informing their audience is a waste of time. We might as well be telling them about early impressionist painters. It’s possible that they have an interest, but it has nothing to do with their jobs.

The only real hope in this story is that some of the reporters take their jobs seriously. In recent years, many of the reporters at the major news outlets have gotten more interested in issues like income distribution, the impact of trade on wages, and other areas that had been largely ignored in prior decades. 

Some of these reporters can be persuaded that if we want to talk about the burdens that current actions by the government create for us in the future, then we have to include patent and copyright rents. The point is simple and the issue is whether or not they want to be honest. 

And, of course the Internet does give us a way around the major news outlets. When these reporters fail to do competent reporting, I can always correct them on Beat the Press, and try to get the correction out as widely as possible through Twitter. And, on rare occasions, a progressive magazine will write about the issue. 

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