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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Numbers in Context: Big Congrats to the New York Times and Margaret Sullivan

Numbers in Context: Big Congrats to the New York Times and Margaret Sullivan

Saturday, 19 October 2013 08:02

I spend a lot of time on this blog beating up on the New York Times. There is a reason I pick on them; they are the best. There is no doubt that the NYT is far and away the most important newspaper in the country. There is no close second. They cover more news in more depth than anyone else by a large margin. Their judgments on what is news and how it is reported sets a standard that has an impact, either directly or indirectly, on every news outlet in the country.

For this reason, it is hugely important that the paper has committed itself to reevaluate how it reports budget numbers and to try to put these numbers in contexts that are meaningful to readers. As many polls have shown, the public is hugely misinformed on where their tax dollars are spent. Some of this misinformation undoubtedly reflects prejudices, but much of it is due to the fact that most budget reporting is not providing meaningful information to readers.

Telling readers that the government will spent $195 billion on transportation over the next six years is telling most readers nothing. They have no idea how large $195 billion is to the federal government over the next six years. On the other hand, if the paper reported that this amount is 0.78 percent of projected spending over this period (found in seconds on CEPR's extraordinary Responsible Budget Calculator) most people would understand the significance of this item to the budget and their tax bill.

Anyhow, we will see exactly how the NYT ends up dealing with the issue, but they deserve a great deal of credit for recognizing the problem and trying to address it. Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor, deserves special credit for taking this one on and pressing it with the paper's editors. Also Bob Naiman, at Just Foreign Policy, played an important role in initiating a petition at Move-On on this issue, which eventually got almost 19,000 signatures. That's pretty impressive for the ultimate wonk petition.



Media Matters also deserves serious credit for pushing this issue.

Comments (19)Add Comment
written by skeptonomist, October 19, 2013 9:17
If the Times or other media wanted to be really informative about the budget, they would regularly show the actual breakdown of expenditures - how much is spent on what. This could be done in a few lines in one column, or in a pie chart - or better, two with overall in one and discretionary in the other. Polls consistently show that most people - including some Congress members - consistently think some items, like foreign aid and CPB are far higher than they really are. Since the real numbers would be new to these people, the media have a duty to publish this as "News".
written by JDM, October 19, 2013 9:19
The shutdown and the beginnings of media people realizing that the "both sides do it; the centrist position is in between the two parties" narrative is highly flawed may have contributed to their welcome realization. If that's the case, at least we'll have gotten something of future value from the $24 billion the Republicans cost our country ($12 billion a week).
Praising the NYT
written by anon, October 19, 2013 9:20
This morning they had an article on the Canada-Europe "Free-Trade Pact" in which they were careful to explain that it was not, in fact, much about free trade.
written by f.fursty, October 19, 2013 9:20
Just goes to show -- if you beat the drum (or the press) long enough, things can actually change. Congratulations!

(PS: my own trick is to use a rule of thumb. Any budget number gets compared in my head to the $700 billion we spend every year on "defense.")
written by JSeydl, October 19, 2013 10:03
Congrats, Dean. I know you fought the good fight in getting this change, which will likely do a heck of a lot of good for our public debates.
Tough Love
written by Bart, October 19, 2013 10:12

So now Dean tells the NYT that he loves them!
a win for the good guys
written by Peter K., October 19, 2013 10:38
Well done, Mr. Baker. Victories like this are good for morale. Thank you.
written by Jpell, October 19, 2013 11:04
Well done, and they even had the courtesy to mention you as one of the instigators of the change.
Thank you Dean
written by David S., October 19, 2013 11:17
This is quite an accomplishment. You have advanced the cause of economic literacy, and I hope you are enjoying a well-deserved sense of self-satisfaction.

A word of advice though -- go easy on the argument that the NYT is a standard-bearer -- many see the NYT as a liberal outlier rather than an industry leader. Know your audience!

Again, much thanks for keeping up the goo fight.
written by PeonInChief, October 19, 2013 1:25
But who knew that basic numeracy was some kind of left-wing position? I'll have to change the sub-heading on my blog to "I'm already against the next war" to "I'm already against the next war and in favor of percentages."

But I'm terrible at math. Calculators were invented for people like me.
It's really not that complicated.
written by somethingblue, October 19, 2013 1:52
As any Fox viewer can tell you, foreign aid accounts for 60% of federal spending, another 55% goes to the NEA and public broadcasting, and the remaining 42% is fraud, waste and abuse.
written by watermelonpunch, October 19, 2013 2:05

Dear Dean Baker,

Thank you very very much for pressing on for us, the people, demanding that we get good quality accurate information in a form that is easily & quickly understandable.
We appreciate your hard work, and the frustrating uphill struggle that you have had. It is worth it.

You are a true hero!


written by Chris E., October 19, 2013 2:40
Looking forward to audits of future NYT budget reporting.

I see a blog post title in the near future:

"NYT has learned nothing"
written by Kat, October 19, 2013 6:57
Congratulations!-- quite a victory.
Next time you go on KudBLOW
written by jumpinjezebel, October 19, 2013 9:46
Next time you go on KudBLOW and that shiny hiney greaseball belittles you just slap that sleazeball right in the face. Maybe it would knock some sense into him and his overyelling and his crackpot guests that never get challenged with their lies. Gloat a little - it's deserved.
bravo, dean baker!
written by trish, October 20, 2013 5:22
a victory for economic's david against a goliath. keep at it. I don't expect the NYT to stop trumpeting all the propaganda fed to them by the redistribution-upward club, but this is a start.
written by Edward Allen, October 20, 2013 10:12
For your consideration, Dr. Baker:

While percentage of Federal spending can be a very helpful stat, so too is percentage of the problem; for example, $1 billion for a dam project is likely to be a much, much greater percentage of the problem than $1 billion to stop carbon emissions.
Mucho Kudos
written by widgetmaker, October 20, 2013 6:58
And a big congrats to you, Professor, Baker. This could be huge. I read the article this morning and thought of you and that they're finally listening. I. can't understand why it took so long because this is so obvious.

If many years from now newspapers regularily use this convention, it began here and it will have made a tremendous difference in the level of dialogue.
written by califather, October 22, 2013 3:24
Really? Most powerful. Biggest. But best?

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.