More ‘Accountability Journalism’

Wednesday's Example of Media Bias   —   Posted on April 2, 2008

(from James Taranto’s Opinion post):
In June we noted that the Associated Press had embraced a new idiom called “accountability journalism.” The AP’s Ron Fournier explained that the venerable wire service, long known for its just-the-facts style of reporting, now aimed to be “provocative,” telling readers not only what happened “but why it happened,” “what it might mean,” and “what it might reveal about the people who presume to be our leaders,” who “sometimes” are “just plain wrong.”

Yet he promised the AP would somehow do this without editorializing or becoming partisan. How well has it done? Here are a few examples:

An AP dispatch [on Feb. 4] explained the differences in the two political parties’ processes for selecting convention delegates via presidential primaries. A key distinction is that many states’ Republican primaries are winner-take-all–that is, whichever candidate gets a plurality of the vote is allotted the state’s entire slate of delegates. The Democrats, by contrast (along with Republicans in some states), divide up delegates proportionately. The result is that a strong second-place showing is worth more to a Democrat than to a Republican.

Here is how the AP’s David Espo sums this all up in his lead paragraph:

When it comes to presidential primaries, Democrats and Republicans play by different rules. One party likes to share. The other, not so much.

Nope, nothing partisan there. Then there’s a piece by the AP’s Calvin Woodward that actually defends congressional earmarks. It starts off in a similarly cutesy style:

Earmarks are only pork when someone else is feasting on them. On your plate, they’re veggies. They are the train that takes you to visit Aunt Betty, or the health clinic down the street, or the waste treatment plant that makes your water safer to drink. They’re not all bridges to nowhere. They’re also bicycle trails to somewhere.

If John McCain is true to his rhetoric in the Republican presidential campaign, he would take a broad ax to spending that voters, upon closer examination, might wish were cut in a more discerning way.

[NOTE: pork-barrel spending/earmarks are when a member of Congres adds funding onto an unrelated spending bill for a specific project (in his/her home state) that benefits voters in that state in order to become more popular with them in an effort to win re-election]

Woodward goes on to list a series of earmarks he considers to be worthy:

  • In California, $438,000 to Monterey County for gang prevention and intervention.
  • In Illinois, $5 million for the Red Cross to buy backup generators, cots, shelter trailers, emergency vehicles and more.
  • In New Haven, Conn., $487,000 to help families and children exposed to violence and trauma.
  • In Oneonta, N.Y., $243,000 for hospital equipment and facilities.
  • In St. James, Mo., $412,000 to expand services to abused and neglected children.
  • In North Dakota, $390,000 to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for a methamphetamine prevention program.

This actually is a useful news story, a corrective to the most outrageous earmark examples typically offered by foes. Woodward’s conclusion is this:

Pork haters like McCain say an agency with its eye on the national interest and an objective way of looking at a region’s needs should decide on such spending, not members of Congress currying local–sometimes very local–favor.

But McCain’s spending plan does not make such distinctions between waste and worthy. In his accounting, if it’s an earmark, it’s bad and it’s gone.

This is a very shallow analysis that seems designed to paint the Republican front-runner as both simple-minded and uncaring. He’s against abused children and the Red Cross! In truth, though, there is a strong argument that even these “worthy” earmarks should be anathema, not only to limited- government conservatives but to welfare-state liberals as well.

To understand why, imagine that Sen. Hillary Clinton is facing a tough re-election bid and needs to court voters in upstate New York. She slips into an appropriations bill an earmark allocating federal money to provide free health insurance to every man, woman and child in Schenectady, N.Y. Would this not be a betrayal of her welfare-state ideals? After years of arguing that health care should be a universal right, she suddenly (in this hypothetical example) is treating it as simply a goodie to be given out in exchange for votes.

How does this differ from local congressmen allocating money for gang prevention in Monterey, Calif., and hospital equipment in Oneonta, N.Y.? What makes abused children in St. James, Mo., more worthy of federal assistance than those down the road in Rolla? Woodward says that earmarking lawmakers justify the practice by insisting “they know their district’s priorities better than Washington could.” But if their chief concern is with local priorities, maybe they should run for City Council or state Senate.

One more example of the AP’s colorful but not terribly detached reporting comes from economics writer Jeannine Aversa:

In a shower of pink slips, U.S. employers cut jobs last month for the first time in more than four years, the starkest signal yet that the economy is grinding to a halt if it hasn’t already toppled into recession.

The headline refers to “a Pink Slip Blizzard,” which directly contradicts the lead paragraph (a shower is an event of short duration, while a blizzard is prolonged). Aversa further explains:

Conditions are deteriorating, according to the latest employment snapshot by the Labor Department, which showed nervous employers slicing payrolls by 17,000.

We checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics press release, and it didn’t say anything about employers being “nervous” or indeed give any clue at all to their emotional state. Moreover, the BLS characterizes the 17,000-job loss as a “small” one, and it’s hard to argue with that. It amounts to less than 1 in 8,000 of the total 138.1 million nonfarm jobs in the country, and it isn’t enough to affect the unemployment rate.

So how did a small decline in employment in one month turn into a “blizzard”?…

Go to for the complete article.