Saturday, September 27, 2003


The worst aspects of the federal government and New York Times were on display today, as the Census Bureau released information on U.S. poverty and the Times covered it with the all-too-typical coolly appraising smugness of a slightly brain-damaged lapdog.

Poverty is up, as expected, with those living below the poverty line rising 1.7 million people, to 34.6 million, or 12.1 percent of the population. Median household income fell by 1.1 percent. This bad news, while not that bad compared with hits the poor have taken in past recessions, was sent out with cover anyway; for the first time, it was released on a Friday (it’s usually released on a Tuesday), when media are less able to reach analysts and experts and have three days of coverage on which to concentrate -- Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- instead of one. The release also happened to coincide with the release of the latest Gross Domestic Product data, which were typically positive.

Although the White House seized the opportunity to take questions about poverty yet give answers about GDP, its official line was that the timing was a coincidence.

Here’s how the Times played it:

“This year the bureau scheduled the release for a Friday, the first time it has done so, and moved the news conference from the centrally located press club to the bureau's suburban headquarters in Suitland, Md. The switch prompted some advocates and lawmakers to speculate that the government agency had been pressured by the administration to move the date and place so that that the results, which most people expected to be worse than they were last year, would generate less attention in the weekend news cycle ...

“Census officials maintained that the delayed release had to do with nothing more than a work backlog.

“ ‘We were running into technical problems getting it all done; we were running behind,’ (a Census Bureau official) said. ‘So we decided, hey, how about some more time.’ ”

Right. The Times gets credit for citing the timing. All that credit is taken away for failing to point out that giving the bureau “more time” has sod-all to do with moving the announcement to the suburbs on a weekend afternoon/evening.

The national Press club is about a mile away from the Washington, D.C., bureau of The New York Times, or less than five minutes by car, if a reporter would have to take a car at all. The Census Bureau is 12.4 miles away by car, or about 25 minutes -- ignoring the area’s traffic, especially on a Friday rush hour, which causes weeping in otherwise stoic adults and cancer in laboratory rats.

The Times also failed to note that the figures released by the bureau are suspect, compiled with the same formula that’s been in use since the 1950s, even though the formula uses expenditures for food as its basis, and expenditures for food have dropped as a percentage of income as such things as housing and health costs have risen, and risen dramatically. This was noted in an op-ed piece the previous day in, of all places, the Times (but, as reporters anywhere will tell you in reference to their employer, “I don’t read this paper”).

The worst of this really falls to the U.S. government. It uses sleight of hand to brag about continued growth in Gross Domestic Product, showing that the economy is getting better, but GDP simply measures all production of goods and services in the United States, which has been relentlessly on the rise even as 2.7 million jobs, about 2.4 million of them in manufacturing, have been lost.

So the country is able to do more with fewer people working; after so many quarters of increasing unemployment coupled with rising productivity, why is that suddenly cause for relief? The economy has been a contradiction for at least two years, defying the predictions even of the people driving it, and I’ve certainly seen no one state that we’re at a tipping point where market behavior suddenly does a U-turn, much less starts behaving the way the president wants it to.

The Times doesn’t note, either, the essential meaninglessness of the White House’s juxtaposition of the two data sets, possibly because its coverage was rushed. It’s a disappointment, regardless -- a half-assed effort of covering officials who are trying to makes asses of all of us.

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