By L. Brent Bozell, III, MediaWatch
September 1993 – In the heat of political battles, both sides often march with their own statistics, and it’s up to the journalist to present both sides of the debate. Statistical claims are complex things to present in a 90-second TV story, and even print journalists can be too quick to present statistics without real proof. When that happens debates can be distorted, and federal spending can jump billions of dollars to address media-manufactured crises with little statistical foundation.
To underline the worst examples of the media’s biased number-crunching, MediaWatch has listed five of the most common statistical exaggerations, dubbed “The Fabricated Five.” Some of these fractured factoids appear daily, others only occasionally, but they all affect billions of dollars in tax money.
1. Medicare and Medicaid “cuts.” This is a daily error. On CNN’s INSIDE POLITICS June 22, reporter Wolf Blitzer suggested White House aides know a budget deal “won’t be easy, given the difference on such sensitive matters as the form of an energy or gasoline tax and the amount of cuts in Medicare and other social programs.” Reporters also made that mistake in 1990. On October 1, CBS reporter Susan Spencer claimed “Medicare took a direct hit in this agreement—$60 billion in savings, half the domestic spending cuts.”
In fact, Medicare and Medicaid are among the biggest and fastest growing programs in the budget. From 1989 to 1993, Medicare grew from $85 billion to $146.4 billion, up 72%; Medicaid rose from $34.6 billion to $80.3 billion, a 132% jump. (Inflation rose only 16%.) But reporters imply spending is going down. Occasionally, reporters stumble into accuracy, like Michael Wines of The New York Times on June 24: “Most of those cuts will come from limiting the explosive rise of Medicare spending.”
2. Mushrooming homelessness. On the June 10 NBC NIGHTLY NEWS, reporter John Gibson guessed: “Nationwide now, there are up to three million homeless people, a problem that seems to defy easy answers.” On January 9, weekend TODAY co-host Jackie Nespral claimed: “Nationally right now, five million people are believed to be homeless...and the numbers are increasing.” ABC and CBS claimed “three million” or more in the days after Christmas 1992. In 1989, CNN anchor Lou Waters cited a study on “40 million Americans on the knife edge of homelessness.”
In 1990, the Census Bureau conducted a one-night partial count of America’s homeless population, employing 15,000 enumerators, the largest effort ever to count the homeless. The Census Bureau counted 220,000. When they announced the number on April 12, the networks and news magazines ignored it.
Instead, media outlets continue to use three million. Of 83 estimates examined by the General Accounting Office in a 1988 study, only the late activist Mitch Snyder claimed a number as high as three million, and it was not one of the 27 studies the GAO considered “useful.” Snyder told Congress in 1954: “These numbers are in fact meaningless. We have tried to satisfy your gnawing curiosity for a number because we are Americans with Western little minds that have to quantify everything in sight, whether we can or not.” Despite the lack of hard proof of mushrooming homelessness, housing assistance grew 120 % from 1989 to 1993.
3. The coming explosion of heterosexual AIDS. On the June 11 CBS EVENING NEWS, reporter Dr. Bob Arnot warned: “Heterosexual AIDS among Americans is growing faster than any other risk group, up 30% in 1992 alone....Heterosexual AIDS...is exploding.” Last November 12, CNN’s Susan Rook said “It’s just a matter of time before AIDS becomes widespread among heterosexuals.”
Michael Fumento, author of The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, told MediaWatch the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found “cases attributed to heterosexual transmission increased 17 percent in 1992, down from a 21% rise in 1991.” But dire predictions keep the cash coming: AIDS receives 20 times as many federal dollars per death as cancer.
Reporters also overcount teens with AIDS. On April 11, 1992, NBC reporter Henry Champ claimed: “The statistics are frightening. A 77% increase in AIDS among teenagers in just two years. There are now 9,000 American teenagers with AIDS and many, many thousands more with the HIV virus.” Three months later, Surgeon General Antonia Novello wrote in USA Today: “Through June, 872 cases of adolescents with AIDS were reported in the United States.”
Stories on young children with AIDS were even worse, On the April 20,1992 CBS EVENING NEWS, Edie Magnus asserted: “It’s no secret that AIDS is ravaging the nation’s very young. Up to 20,000 children have AIDS.” On November 11,1991, ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT anchor Peter Jennings claimed: “As many as a million and one-half other Americans have the AIDS virus, more than one-quarter [375,000] of them children.” In June 1992, the CDC said the total number of people diagnosed with AIDS is 230,209. Of that, 3,898 are children age 12 and under.
4. Falling federal aid to states and cities. On June 19, CBS reporter John Roberts proclaimed: “Through 12 years of Republican administrations, payments to cities decreased 75%.” On June 20, NBC anchor Garrick Utley interviewed the chairman of the Conference of Mayors: “Their concern: the major cuts in financial aid from the federal government that occurred in the 1980s...What government spending or subsidies from the Washington level were cut 50% in the 1980s?” Cato Institute economist Stephen Moore found federal aid to states and cities rose from $89.5 billion in 1989 to $142.8 billion in 1993 in constant 1990 dollars, a 60% leap. But reporters claimed federal neglect.
In the ’80s, Congress sent money directly to the poor instead of the mayors. Wrote Moore: “While direct federal aid was cut in the Reagan years, aid to poor people living in cities increased.” Still, the Census Bureau found total municipal spending rose 26% after inflation in the 1980s.
5. The rich grew richer, the poor grew poorer in the 1980s. In the April 26 U.S. News & World Report, writer David Hage argued: ‘The richest fifth of American families saw their incomes rise by a solid 13.9%, while the incomes of all other U.S. families stagnated or declined.” On February 7, 1992, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS reporter Keith Morrison went further: “Did we wear blinders? Did we think the ’80s just left behind the homeless? The fact is that almost nine in ten Americans saw their lifestyle decline.”
Claims like these are classic Democratic campaign slogans, but Census Bureau data shows that average family income increased in every fifth of income earners from 1982 to 1989. Median family income increased in every one of those eight years, rising 13% after inflation.