Tag Archives: NPR

The Rest of the Story

A few days ago, I noted that Fox News had actually had kind words to say about a piece run by NPR. I should have known that there was something wrong with that picture–and there was. In the wake of the NPR report, which addressed perceived overuse of the Social Security Disability program, there have been serious criticisms of its accuracy and conclusions.

I should have known that a Fox endorsement calls for a closer look….

The Planet Money report portrayed the disability program as a “hidden, increasingly expensive safety net,” and implied strongly that it was over-used and out of control. Those conclusions were rebutted in at least two subsequent stories, one in U.S. News and World Report, and the other in the L.A. Times.

U.S. News called the NPR report “overwrought and unbalanced.” The typical beneficiary is in his or her late 50s, suffering from severe mental, musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory or other debilitating condition. Studies have concluded that most beneficiaries are unable to work at all, and virtually none can do anything substantial. It is true, as NPR reported, that the number of people collecting disability has grown, but this is a function of demographics; as U.S. News notes, “It is completely predictable that claims would go up as the baby boomers aged into the period in their lives when disability claims become more likely, and increasing numbers of women were acquiring the work experience necessary to qualify.”

About those qualifications: getting disability is far from easy. To be eligible, you must have worked for at least one-fourth of your adult life, and have been employed in at least five of the ten years prior to application. (Children qualify under SSI, a companion program, and workers younger than 31 have to have been employed in half the years since they turned 22.) Only a quarter of all applications are approved initially, and another 13% on appeal. Only 41% of those who apply ever see a check.

Disability rates are closely tied to work conditions–as the L.A. Times reports, in West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest disability rate, 150 out of every 1000 jobs involves transportation, hauling, construction or mining.  NPR reported on a county in Alabama, where a large percentage of the population is on disability. Despite NPR’s insinuation that residents of the County were a bunch of malingerers, a Center for Budget Policy and Priorities analysis places it among a group of Southern and Appalachian states with a distinct set of demographic indicators: low rates of high-school completion, an older workforce, fewer immigrants and an industrial mix that consists mainly of manufacturing, forestry and mining. Older, less educated workers in physically demanding jobs are less likely to be able to continue working if they become disabled.

So–as Paul Harvey would have said–that’s “the rest of the story.”

You’d think the exponents of “fair and balanced” reporting might have noted the existence of a conflicting narrative.


Because Fair Isn’t Necessarily Balanced…

National Public Radio has just adopted new ethics guidelines. We can only hope they signal the beginning of a wide trend in the media.

The new code stresses the importance of accuracy over false balance; it appears–finally–to abandon the “he said, she said” approach (what I have elsewhere called “stenography masquerading as reporting”) that all too often distorts truth in favor of a phony “fairness.”

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly.

One of my gripes over the past several years has been the abandonment of precisely this tenet of good journalism. A good example has been environmental reporting–how many times have media sources reported on climate change, for example, by giving equal time and weight to  the settled science and the deniers, without ever noting that the deniers constitute less than 1% of all climate scientists, and are generally regarded as a kooky fringe? That’s “balance,” but it certainly isn’t “fair to the truth.”

A few years ago, this sort of false equivalency was illustrated by one of my all-time favorite Daily Show skits. The “senior journalism reporter” was explaining the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks on John Kerry to Jon Stewart. “The Swift Boat Veterans say this happened; the Kerry Campaign says it didn’t. Back to you, Jon!” When Stewart then asked “But aren’t you going to tell us who is telling the truth?”  the response was dead-on. “Absolutely not, Jon. This is journalism.”

Far too often, reporters pursue artificial balance at the expense of truth. If a Democratic campaign plays a dirty trick, reporters rush to remind their audience of a similar transgression by Republicans, and vice-versa. This search for equivalency may be well-intentioned, but it misrepresents reality and misleads those of us who depend upon the media for accurate information.

NPR’s recognition of this pernicious practice, and it’s new Code of Ethics, are a welcome sign that at least some journalists might be returning to Job One: telling us the unembellished truth.

Factoids to Ponder…..

As we prepare to lay off teachers, deal a body blow to Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide health care for poor women, further eviscerate civics education, etc., etc., etc.–a few things to ponder (h/t to Greg Kueterman):

  • A Tomahawk missile cost 569,000 in FY99
  • Factoring in inflation, they probably cost 736,000 =/- today
  • The U.S. fired 110 of these missiles just on Monday, or 81 million dollars worth
  • That’s 33 times the amount NPR receives in grants each year from the Corporation on Public Broadcasting.

Just sayin’……..