BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After President Bush unveiled his proposed national budget last Monday, the online community went into overdrive, offering instant analysis of not just the budget but the coverage of the budget. Bloggers complained that though the numbers didn't add up, first rate analysis was noticeably absent from the front pages of many newspapers. They were not alone. New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman is known to take swipes at the Bush administration, but he's also been pretty critical of the press, and he says the coverage of the budget left many readers in the dark.
PAUL KRUGMAN: It's been pretty disappointing. The stuff that everyone who's following this knows, stuff that's not difficult, the effects of making the tax cuts permanent on the long-term deficit; the effect of alternative minimum tax reform which everybody has known was an urgent issue for years now. All of those things I think are invisible to someone who isn't working at it professionally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well, bloggers, most of whom are not professional economists, seem to have picked up on it right away. One blogger, Brad DeLong, broke down the Washington Post coverage of the budget, and he wrote that the first ten paragraphs were exactly as the White House media affairs would want them to be, and you didn't get substantive criticism until paragraph 26.
PAUL KRUGMAN: That's right. I mean that shouldn't be happening. I know -- yes, you don't want the news section to read like a partisan attack, but in the very first few paragraphs, you should say something like this is a, a budget that raised eyebrows around Washington, or something like that, because it's true. That's the real story -- not the boilerplate that came with the official presentation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn't part of this simply the fact that covering budgets is hard?
PAUL KRUGMAN:No. This particular time was completely unforgivable. For one thing, we knew the main content of the budget before it was actually released on Monday. The basic outlines had been released by the White House. So we had all of that. Budget analyses you don't have to be a budget expert yourself. You can go to think tanks. They all have some partisan agenda, but you can check their work, and any reporter who was at all worthy of his job would have been ready before the budget came out to write an analytical story that got it right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And how much do you think that standard journalistic practice contributes to what amounts to misleading coverage?
PAUL KRUGMAN:I think it's partly standard journalistic practice. It's partly the -- if the president says that the earth is flat, the news story at best says "Shape of the Earth Views Differ."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] Are there any other things that journalists do that sort of work in the president's favor in presenting perhaps a more positive slant on the budget than the numbers would suggest?
PAUL KRUGMAN: I think the point is when you see lines that say things like "critics say that the administration's forecast of cutting the deficit in half is unrealistic" -- you shouldn't be saying that. The newspapers should say "the administration's forecast of a deficit of 230 billion dollars in 2009 omits 190 billion dollars of costs resulting from programs that the administration itself is advocating."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why do you think that stuff isn't in the stories?
PAUL KRUGMAN:I have multiple explanations. I don't know which is true. But one thing I know is that it's just very unpleasant to cross these people. I think news organizations and individual journalists find that it's a very harrowing experience to be perceived as not being on the team with the current administration, and I think that they cover themselves by ensuring that there isn't anything to grab hold of at least on the first page that will mark them as being enemies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Newspaper reporters are relying on the idea that maybe a lot of administration officials don't read past the junk?
PAUL KRUGMAN:No, I think that the administration officials don't care what's past the junk, because they know that the general public doesn't really follow it. They care about what's on page one, not on what diligent readers will find in the 26th paragraph.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now I've called you knowing full well where you stand on the Bush administration's budget, but I'm asking you to be an analyst here. Do you think it's possible to be objective when it comes to evaluating the budget?
PAUL KRUGMAN: Oh, sure. There's a difference between advocacy and simply describing the facts. So if you say that the improvement that is forecast in the deficit according to the president's budget relies upon Congress not renewing some expiring tax provisions which the administration has urged Congress to renew, then you're not being partisan in saying that. You're just saying -- look, this number here is not the number that would result from the administration's own policies. We are not talking about issues of economic theory here, and we're not talking about issues of political slant. We're actually just talking about arithmetic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Paul Krugman, thank you very much.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Krugman is an economist at Princeton University and a columnist for the New York Times. [MUSIC]