Journalism or Propaganda?

(Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and president of the Foundation for Economic Education, headquartered in Irvington, N.Y. This commentary appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of IMPACT, the Mackinac Center's quarterly newsletter.)

Adlai Stevenson's description of the journalist as one who "separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff" was never more apropos than in the April 5 edition of The New York Times. Adam Nossiter's article, "Louisiana, a Test Case in Federal Aid," makes lowly chaff seem like nothing less than the cream of the crop.

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Imagine a thief who spends an afternoon pickpocketing a sizable crowd. In a few hours, he's nabbed thousands of dollars in cash and a bag full of credit cards. He then spends a small fortune at some jewelry stores and makes off with the loot as a suspicious citizen who recognizes him cries, "Stop!"

If Nossiter were covering this little episode, the story in The Times the next day would read: "A Good Samaritan yesterday gave several gem shops a big boost when he bought more diamonds than the stores usually sell in a month. The benefits of the spending binge were confirmed by no less an authority than the store owners themselves, who promise to hire more employees if the generous customer comes back regularly. An obviously disgruntled passerby attempted to interfere in the matter by shouting as the customer left, but he was told by an angry store manager to leave well enough alone. Meanwhile, economists at the nearby state university are hailing the increase in local GDP."

Make these substitutions and you have the gist of the actual article that appeared in The Times: The Good Samaritan is the federal government, the jewelry store is Louisiana and the passerby who tried to rain on their parade is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The Times story notes that the feds have dumped more than $50 billion in money on Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina. "Indicators suggest," notes Nossiter, that "dumping a large amount of reconstruction money into a confined space . . . has had a positive outcome."

Lo and behold, guess what has happened to construction in Louisiana? It's up! (Apparently, not even the government can spend $50 billion on construction without yielding some construction.) Nossiter quotes a professor who says this proves that "stimulus can have an effect."

Gov. Jindal, like the meddlesome passerby in my fictional scenario, is raising objections to this "free" money from Washington. He warns of "dire consequences" of the federal spending spree. But Nossiter says not to worry: "In Louisiana, the consequences have hardly been dire - just the opposite, in fact." What more proof could you want than the fact that all the recipients of the spending say they were stimulated?

Sadly, the Nossiter story is not all that untypical of what passes these days for mainstream journalism. Its reasoning is so infantile, its evidence so transparent, and its economics so woefully deficient that one can't help but wonder if it was printed simply to advance somebody's big government agenda.


Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.