June 10th, 2006 14:07 EST
Diddling Data, Cooking Books, Spinning Numbers
Numbers don’t lie. Oh, yeah. Anytime a public or corporate official tells you that—it’s usually accompanied by, "Here it is in black and white"—check your wallet. Numbers can and do lie. They can be interpreted to support anything someone wants you to believe. Never be hornswoggled by dudded up reports and such bon mots such as, "It’s all here". That’s the easy part. But what to do about the rascals is not so easy. They laid a pricey report on you that has all the trappings of authority, the smack of authenticity.
How are you, a lowly reporter and probably one with no statistical training, going to approach this formidable document sitting on your desk? Hopefully, with a grain of salt. But where's the salt? The ideal way isn’t always possible. Suppose you’re one of a number of news people who’ve been handed the report. You’ve been told it’s the best that a credentialed group of experts can produce. You can’t sit on it long enough to seek outside advice, to let an independent statistician vet the numbers and the conclusions drawn from them. You’ve got to go with what you’ve got. This is going to happen, count on it. And don’t think for a moment that the people who laid this on you don’t savor your predicament. They’re counting on it.
The sad truth, a truth the media won’t cop to, is that all too often a reporter reads the summary, synopsizes its conclusions, gets a few quotes from the rascals and their community of interest, lifts a few passages from the text and runs with it. Next day, one of three things happens:
1) somebody reacts and that’s a story,
2) the newsroom is too shorthanded to pursue the story, or
3) the story is lost in the melee of breaking events.
So bent numbers and politicized conclusions in support of political agendas enter the public domain unchallenged. That’s one of the ways the electorate, national or local, is jerked around. And then we publicly wring our hands and kvetch about how the public got its weird and dubious ideas. It got them because manipulations of data went undetected. A resourceful reporter with a powerhouse list of experts can sometimes run the conclusions of an official report by a knowledgeable source, often an academic, and raise some issues in his or her initial report. This should be de rigeur.
Next day a follow-up story can elaborate and pursue new issues. Maybe. Probably not on small and medium-sized publications. If a reporter has reason to think competitors don’t have the document, then he or she can take a little time to craft a more balanced story. That’s a big if, and it assumes that the news staff hasn’t been so decimated by cost-cutting that the reporter will have time to do the right thing. Running with bum information is another horror of the cost-cutting era. And in this era of infotainment some editor is very likely to say, Let’s just run a few paragraphs, because reports bore readers.
Newspaper owners contend that the news business is so imperiled economically that they have no choice but to scale back news operations or shut down. Since they don’t publish their own books, we have no choice but to take their word for it. And even if they did publish their books—news chains and big newspapers do release earnings and annual reports—how would we know they’re not cooked? We know already that circulation figures have often been finagled.
There is another issue. News media, unlike other businesses, enjoy constitutional protection under the First Amendment, and they play a role clearly assigned them by the founding fathers to keep government honest. The more they cut back news operations, the more they serve up flack instead of information, the less they deserve the constitutional protection afforded them, and the less they honor their historic assignment from the founders.
Government statistical agencies are persistently politicized by political appointees who direct civil servants, and never more so that in the current administration. These politicos are likely the very people who have been smearing the civil servants in political campaigns, claiming that government is bloated and corrupt, when in fact they're the ones who corrupt the finest civil service in the world. And that goes for both parties.
The way the missions of the statistical agencies is corrupted takes many forms:
• Press releases distort findings and omit politically inconvenient matter.
• Reports are published without press releases or fanfare in order to hide them in plain sight because they don’t support the ideologies of the politicians.
• The reports themselves are distorted so that their numbers and data are made to support the ideas of the people in power.
• Reports are delayed in order to wait for more hospitable political climates.
• Sometimes the reports are suppressed altogether, or released in such abbreviated form as to be next to useless.
• And sometimes critical number sets and findings are omitted or buried in boilerplate. And all these dirty tricks are done on taxpaper time with tax money, and not by the civil service but by its political overseers. Similar skullduggery mars city, county and state government. Timing is a big factor.
There are institutions that study government and corporate reports meticulously. Some of them will attempt to put a liberal or conservative stamp on them, meaning that reports that have already been twisted are twisted further in the private sector. But the damage caused by a tampered report is done once it’s released, and public opinion is difficult to change after first impressions.
That’s why it took so long for the public to comprehend that it had been duped into making war in Iraq—the government’s initial “facts” were believed. The press fell down on the job. Just as it does every day in every town, city and county in the nation. It isn’t just the press’s job to get at the truth, or at very least to raise questions about what purports to be the truth; it’s also the press’s job to raise the public’s consciousness to the plain, wretched fact that public affairs are often driven by people who want to believe a certain set of lies because it happens to complement their preconceptions.
The press has an obligation to help create a society in which the electorate comes to appreciate that truth is usually inconvenient and inhospitable to ideology of any stripe. The consequences of the press’s failure to our society are tragic, and endanger the future of a republic founded on the idea of transparency. Here are two high-profile instances of this betrayal of the public trust:
• Every seasoned government reporter in the country knew that the Whitewater scandal, a questionable real estate deal involving the Clintons in Arkanas, had its look-alikes in practically every county in the country, but the commonplace nature of this admittedly squalid scheme never sank into the public’s mind because the press went on nattering as if it was as big a deal as Watergate. The Washington press corps in particular has to take the rap for this abject collapse of balanced reportage.
• Time and again, proponents of killing the federal estate tax, which ultra-conservatives call the death tax, have said that one of the tax’s most egregious effects is heirs losing the family farm, and yet not a single instance of this ever happening has been reported. Does this mean that no reporter has ever asked a proponent of killing the tax to cite such an instance? Another under-reported aspect of killing the estate tax is that at most it affects 20 percent of the population, so killing it would be a gift to the very rich, while it would deprive the social safety net of billions of dollars for the poor. Crime, labor, prison, medicine, gun, farm, poverty statistics are all compiled by federal and state agencies—you name the stats and somebody is poring over them—and they’re all subject to manhandling by political hacks, stooges and blind ideologues.
The only defense the public has against this sabotage of the system, this ethical bankruptcy, is the integrity of civil servants and a press that is now largely in the hands of a relative few moguls with their own axes to grind. Not a pretty or optimistic picture, but reporters, and indeed all of us, must face up to it, because the alternative is more wars for profiteers, more rigged elections, more misperceptions among the voters, and an ever-widening chasm between the very rich and the growing poor.