Sunday, February 22, 2004

Fuzzy Math In an article [registration required] about disenchanted Bush supporters in today's New York Times, reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal quotes man-on-the-street interviewee George Meagher thus:
When I think about 500 people killed and what we've done to Iraq. And what we've done to our country. I mean, we're already $2 trillion in debt again.

Rosenthal is fully aware, one would hope, that the national debt is, in reality, just a shade over seven trillion dollars. But if she's familiar with this fact, you wouldn't know it from reading her reporting--she passes the $2 trillion figure along to readers without comment or clarification.

Now, granted, what I'm talking about here is a single statistic buried deep in a piece analyzing voter angst and anger (rather than, say, fiscal policy).

But ask yourself this: If Meagher had gotten the debt figure correct but instead referred to the "1750 people killed" in Iraq, would Rosenthal and her editors have been comfortable printing his figure in The Times without also inserting some sort of parenthetical correction/clarification?

And isn't the failure of The Times--and other powerful media organizations--to deal seriously and frankly with budget arithmetic at least a small part of why the White House is currently occupied by an administration that has made the "borrow-and-spend" approach a central tenet of its economic strategy?

UPDATE: Check here to read about another potential problem with Rosenthal's reporting.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.