Journalists Hide Real Numbers When Reporting Budget Spin


The standard media coverage of President Barack Obama’s new budget claimed the proposals included $600 billion of budget cuts over the next decade.

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It was just about impossible, though, to find any media story mentioning some basic numbers that belong in any story about a new federal budget. How much money is the federal government spending this year? How does that compare to what it spent last year, or expects to spend next year?

Perhaps the reason for this failure is because the real numbers don’t match up with the storyline. For example, in the current year, the federal government is expected to spend $3,651 billion. With all the spending cuts being talked about, a reasonable person might assume that spending next year will be down a bit. But it’s not. In fact, the president’s budget calls for spending $3,901 billion in 2015. That’s $250 billion more than this year. It’s not a one-year aberration either. Spending increases are projected every single year for the next decade and beyond.

It’s hard to write that the president’s budget is cutting spending by $600 billion while also reporting numbers showing spending going in the opposite direction.

Sadly, Washington reporters have chosen to overcome this difficulty by leaving the real numbers out of their stories. That’s a huge problem. We can reasonably expect politicians to spin the numbers and hide the truth because that’s what they do. However, in a free society with a free press, we should be able to count on journalists to report the facts rather than the spin. Unfortunately, we can’t.

The actual numbers create even more problems for reporters when you look five years down the road. In 2020, federal spending is expected to reach $4,964 billion. That’s an increase of $1,063 billion from the 2015 budget proposed by the president. The absurdity is that while annual spending will be a trillion dollars higher in a few years, the political world is trying to claim that the budget is filled with spending cuts.

The basic problem is simple and should be easy for a reporter to explain. In the 1970s, Congress tortured the English language by requiring that if federal spending grows less than expected, it should officially be called a spending cut. Outside of the beltway bubble, nobody talks like that. Reporters are letting the public down by accepting the word games of politicians and not reporting the real numbers in the language of ordinary Americans.

This is more than just a theoretical discussion about journalistic standards. The failure of reporters to provide real numbers presents a false image to the American public about the state of the budget. Spending is not being cut but going up. This is a reality no one in Washington wants to address.

It’s easy to grasp why politicians would want to hide the unpopular reality of ever-increasing federal spending. But what’s harder to understand is why journalists feel no need to report the facts.

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