Biased Budget Reporting

I was certainly surprised to see Barack Obama propose any sort of spending freeze. Less surprising, however, is how it’s been reported.

For reasons that I admit escape me, it is apparently a law of journalism that any budget-related act will be made to look as stingy as possible. Remember this when you read the news.

Spending increases that were planned all along aren’t considered increases at all and do not make the news. Unplanned increases, those over and above the planned ones, are reported as though only the unplanned parts were increases. Large spending increases get extra praise for boldness. Reductions in the rate of spending growth are called “spending cuts.” Real though tiny cuts are described as draconian measures. We would probably have to invent a new word, something scary with reference to the intimate anatomy, if significant, across-the-board spending cuts ever arrived. Within most of our lifetimes, this has never happened.

Today’s reporting fits the pattern perfectly. The Washington Post headline proclaims, “Obama to Propose Freeze on Government Spending.” The New York Times declares, “Obama to Seek Freeze on Some Spending to Trim Deficits.” It is, we learn, “an initiative intended to signal his seriousness about cutting the budget deficit.”

Wonderful! Or stingy! Or both!

But not, you know, accurate. The details are in the fine print, and they don’t remotely live up to the headlines. The freeze applies only to discretionary spending. It doesn’t touch military or entitlement programs, and these are the large majority of the budget. It may not even be a meaningful freeze on the discretionary portion, as my colleague Dan Mitchell points out. And it’s only down in the fifth paragraph where the Times notes that “The estimated $250 billion in savings over 10 years would be less than 3 percent of the roughly $9 trillion in additional deficits the government is expected to accumulate over that time.”

In other words, today’s news is a virtual nothing with almost no likelihood of being carried through anyway. If this is “intended to signal seriousness,” I wonder what an unserious proposal would look like. I also wonder what sort of proposals we’d get from our politicians if our media reported on budget matters without its deeply ingrained bias against fiscal discipline.