On Reading the News

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

More than half the world sees news from the AP each day.

Starting in eighth grade, back in Paleolithic times when I was a student, we were taught to read newspapers analytically — to ask questions about what the words said, not just swallow them whole. I don’t see much evidence that skill is being taught today — nor in the past 40 years — and I hope to do a bit to compensate for that lack.

You can’t have a democracy if people just swallow whole whatever they’re told. I’m counting on people in their 50s and younger to save the three-part government I was taught to respect.  I mean the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive branch.  Corporations are not supposed to be part of government.

Today’s lesson analyzes two articles released on the same day by the Associated Press, an organization made up of hundreds of US newspapers and broadcasting companies.  Here’s how the AP describes itself:

The Associated Press (“AP”) is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from the AP. Founded in 1846, the AP today is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. The AP considers itself to be the backbone of the world’s information system, serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television, and online customers with coverage in text, photos, graphics, audio and video.

Disclosure: In 1978 I won a New England AP first prize for the best breaking news story written on deadline. That same year AP paid me $10 for a page one photo published in the regional newspaper I worked for.  Now that you know I’m in their pocket, please read on.

I’m not going to argue that AP is biased, except in favor of dumbing down the news they provide. I leave it to you to decide for yourself the impression uncritical readers are likely to take away from these two articles, and what effect that impression might have on how they view two important current legislative issues.

Exhibit 1: “Influence game: Renewable energy goal stalls

The article begins with an editor’s note, written by the AP editor, not the one in the newspaper where I read it.  If it had been in the Recorder, my local paper, I’d have written a letter to the editor.  Let this be my letter to the editor of the AP.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An occasional look at how behind-the-scenes influence is exercised in Washington.

Here’s the first paragraph — the lede, as it’s spelled in the news biz. It’s meant to keep you reading.

A powerful lobbying coalition is campaigning to require more electricity to come from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. But the effort hasn’t gotten any traction in the Senate this year, despite the push by environmental groups, renewable energy providers, more than half the nation’s governors and even some utilities.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m teed off at the Senate because renewable energy hasn’t gotten anywhere this year. Awright, I say to myself, this article is going to tell half the world’s population who’s really behind the logjam.

The next thing you need to know is that newspaper articles are measured in column inches.  It doesn’t matter how wide a column is (in the Recorder, page one columns are wider than those on the inner pages) or what size the type is, which has a bearing on how many inches long the story will be. A piece that is one column wide and two inches long is two column inches.

The “Influence game” story ran about 28 column inches in the Recorder — 48 if you count the four column by five inch high photo of a cluster of windmills that the AP supplied to illustrate the story. I’m not counting the the photo, but it’s there because people read more articles that have pictures with them than that don’t, and the AP (and the Recorder) clearly wanted this story read.

A 28-inch story is one the AP — and the editors at its member papers who publish it — consider really important. A 12-inch story is important. An AP  story in the same edition of the Recorder reporting that former President Jimmy Carter tells “60 Minutes” that the late Senator Ted Kennedy prevented Carter’s health care legislation from reaching the senate floor ran six inches.

Now, wouldn’t you think that an article about how “behind-the-scenes influence is exercised in Washington” would tell you how the renewable energy logjam was created, who’s behind it, how they managed to keep it from being voted upon when that “powerful lobbying coalition” wanted it enacted?

Well, it doesn’t. The piece takes up about 24 of its 28 inches dropping the names of about a dozen members of the “coalition” that is so “powerful” that it can’t get its way. Not until the last four inches does it mention an opponent to renewable energy, and that’s a single large electricity provider. And on the way out the article discloses that the Senate GOP leadership is also opposed.

Wow.  What a great expose of behind-the-scenes Washington and how it crushes powerful coalitions. You come away knowing nothing you didn’t know before.  What a waste of trees and soy ink.

Here’s a tip: If you want a good look at what’s going on behind the scenes, take a look at the New Yorker’s August 30 article on the Koch Brothers, whose multibillion dollar fortune comes from the energy industry, and their behind-the-scenes megamillion dollar spending to sink renewables, climate change legislation, and just about everything else that would benefit people who actually break a sweat during their work day.

If the man who wrote the AP article had done a simple web search on “renewable energy” and “opponent”, the first hit would have been an article from the Cato Institute.  If he didn’t already know, a simple search would have told him that the Koch brothers founded and are major funders of the Cato Institute.

Even more simply, if his research had included that New Yorker article, the writer of that AP article would have known something about the subject he pretended to write about.

And newspapers wonder why people are giving up on them.  Sheesh.

Exhibit 2: “Expiring tax cuts hit taxpayers at every level

The same day’s nursery stories from the AP include an article on the tax cuts enacted by the Republican Congress during the early reign of George 43, when Grover Norquist, a Bush henchman, was promising to shrink United States government to the size “where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (Any bets on how long it would take the Republican Broadcast System — a.k.a. Fox News — to brand as a traitor any Democrat who mused about destroying our government? And they’d be right, for once. But when a Republican says it? That’s patriotism. But I digress.)

To cut those taxes, in 2001 and 2003, Senate Republicans had to use the budget reconciliation procedure that they stroked out over when Democrats used it to pass the health care bill this year. And the only way they could do it even then was to make the cuts expire at the end of this year. If Congress does nothing, the cuts go away. Obama wants to extend them for everyone earning less than $200,000 ($250,000 for a couple filing jointly.)

But the Republicans wouldn’t mind letting the tax cuts for lower income people go away, but not for the richest people in this country.  That would be bad for the economy, despite the billions it would add to the budget deficit they voted to create and now hang around Obama’s neck like a lei from the state he claims to have been born in.

Here’s how the AP story plays it.

Here’s some pressure for lawmakers: If they don’t reach agreement on extending soon-to-expire Bush-era tax cuts, nearly all their constituents back home will get big tax increases.

A typical family of four with a household income of $50,000 a year would have to pay $2,900 more in taxes in 2011, according to a new analysis by Deloitte Tax LLP, a tax consulting firm. The same family making $100,000 a year would see its taxes rise by $4,500.

Wealthier families face even bigger tax hikes. A family of four making $500,000 a year would pay $10,800 more in taxes. The same family making $1 million a year would get a tax increase of $53,200.

Now, you don’t have to be a math genius to recognize that $100,000 is twice as much as $50,000, but that the increase for the higher-income family is less than twice that of the lower-income one. Two times $2,900 is $5,800, not $4,500.

But wait — there’s more. A family making $500,000 — ten times $50,000 — will have to suffer with an income tax increase of $10,800. Last time I looked, ten times $2,900 is $29,000, not $10,800. And a family making a cool million a year? Taxes would go up a brutal $53,200 — about $5,000 shy of the $58,000 they’d see if they paid 20 times the amount paid by people who earn one-twentieth of what they take in.

That paints a slightly different picture than the one the AP gives you, does it not?  And what about this?  What would you say if you realized that people who earn $50,000 will see a 5.8% increase, those earning $100,000 a 4.5% increase, those with $500,000 a year a 2.2% increase, and people getting $1 million a 5.3% increase if the Bush era raid on the treasury is allowed to expire.

Did you notice that even the millionaires get a smaller increase than those who actually work for $50,000 a year?

You know what they say in the big cities about a job that pays $50,000 a year? If you earn that much you can eat and pay the rent, but not necessarily in the same month. Out here where I live, $50K sounds good. But you couldn’t get me to live in Boston, or New York, or San Francisco on that.

So about the AP story, let’s call it laziness. I wouldn’t want to think that whoever wrote it couldn’t do the math, or that s/he wanted to get people riled up enough to tell their legislators that even — no, especially –the richest should keep their cut, even though it will bankrupt the country.

There is so much blatant unfairness in the way all but the very rich are treated in this country. There’s something wrong about a news source that informs more than half the world on a daily basis glossing over it as though it’s simply the American way.

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