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Dean Baker | The Tea Party and the New York Times Shut Down the Government
Protesters rally against government tax and spending policies at the U.S. Capitol on September 12, 2009 in Washington. (Photo: via Shutterstock )

Dean Baker | The Tea Party and the New York Times Shut Down the Government

Protesters rally against government tax and spending policies at the U.S. Capitol on September 12, 2009 in Washington. (Photo: via Shutterstock )

Most of the country is furious at the Tea Party types in Congress who voted to shut down the government in a last ditch effort to stop the Affordable Care Act. They are terrified that their worst nightmare is about to come true: people across the country will be able to get affordable health care.

Polls show that this is not a very winning position. As a result, the Republicans are now desperately trying to convince the public that they really didn’t mean all those things they said about the Obamacare just before the shutdown. Actually this shutdown is over government spending.

This one is absurd even by Washington standards, but shutting down the government and threatening default on the debt over spending should not be much more popular than shutting it down to keep people from getting health care. After all, the vast majority of spending goes to programs that enjoy overwhelming support from the American people: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, education, infrastructure, and medical research.

The only major area of spending that does not enjoy overwhelming public support is the military. Of course the Republicans are not shutting down the government to force cuts in the Defense Department.

The reason that many people might be sympathetic to shutting down the government over spending is they are badly confused about where their tax dollars are going. Polls consistently show that people grossly overestimate the amount of money going to many less popular categories of spending.

A CNN poll from 2011 found that the typical person thought foreign aid accounted for 10 percent of the budget. The actual number is less than 1.0 percent. The poll found that a typical person thought funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) took up 5.0 percent of the budget. The correct number is 0.012 percent. It is not surprising that if people think that these and other less popular areas of the budget account for much of the government’s spending, they might be willing to see extreme measures to cut spending.

This is where the New York Times comes into the picture. It is the media’s job to inform the public about the budget. They are clearly failing badly. A major reason is very simple. When they write about the budget they almost never put the numbers in context.

As a result, readers might hear that we’re spending $15 billion on foreign aid or $400 million on the CPB and think that this is a lot of money. Of course it is a lot of money for anyone other than Bill Gates. Almost none of us will ever see this sort of money in our lifetime. But it is not a lot of money for the federal government.

This point would be immediately apparent in every news report on the budget if the standard practice was to report budget items as a share of the budget instead of in dollar terms. Telling readers that spending on CPB takes up 0.012 percent of the budget immediately tells them how important this spending is to the government. Telling readers that we’re spending $400 million on CPB tells the overwhelming majority of readers almost nothing.

There is no excuse for budget reporting that does not actually inform its audience. This is not a question where additional resources are needed. There is no reporter at any major news outlet who can’t turn a dollar amount into a percentage of the budget in seconds. (They can even use the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s magnificent new Responsible Budget Reporting Calculator.)

This is something that can actually change. The current practice of budget reporting is 100 percent indefensible. No reporter will say with a straight face that any substantial percentage of their readers has any clue what it means when they write about a $40 billion cut to food stamps over the next decade.

Fortunately the New York Times (NYT) has a public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who takes journalistic standards seriously. There is good reason to believe that if enough people were to raise this issue with her that she would look into the issue and press the matter with the paper’s editors.

If the New York Times were to change its practice for budget reporting most of the rest of the media would almost certainly follow. The NYT is recognized as the preeminent newspaper in the country. Their standards are taken seriously by everyone.

This is an issue where progressives can win. We are clearly right – there is no argument on the other side. The liberal advocacy groups that support various forms of social spending would be pushing this issue themselves, but they have a strict philosophical principle: “we have been losing for 30 years, why change now?”

This can be done. We can get the NYT to stop supporting the Tea Party, if we ask them.

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