Joe Vornehm of Simpsonville, S.C., pulled out his ruler to count the number of column inches his local newspaper, the Gannett-owned Greenville News, had written about the budget impasse in Washington.
He found 42.5 inches on the Obama administration's position, 6.5 inches he described as neutral and 7.5 inches on the Republican position.
I think the coverage in The Greenville News would be roughly the same across the United States over the past week in a one-sided blame game against the GOP for bringing out the forced reductions in the federal budget in what has become known as sequestration. (See an explanation of sequestration at bit.ly/Y5qAmL.)
The press has taken up the administration's strategy, generally known as "firemen first" in political terms. When a city or state government faces a budget shortfall, the politicians immediately wring their hands and say cops and firefighters will be the first to go if taxes aren't raised or a bond issue isn't passed. It's the same kind of scare tactic the media are propagating about the sequester clash. In a recent Gallup poll, more than half of those questioned didn't really know what to think. The poll represents an honest view; the media have pushed an agenda.
Here are a few of the scare tactics in the media:
The Philadelphia Inquirer blared: "Milk could be taken from babies." Well, not exactly. The reality is, some low-income families may not receive a high-protein milk formula.
The New York Times picked up the scream meme: "[T]he sequestration cuts, as they are called, still contain billions of dollars in mandatory budget reductions in programs that help low-income Americans, including one that gives vouchers for housing to the poor and disabled and another that provides fortified baby formula to the children of poor women." Well, not exactly.
A headline in The Chicago Tribune read: "FAA: Sequestration could force O'Hare tower, runway to close at times." Highly unlikely.
The media also beat down those who disagreed. After legendary journalist Bob Woodward argued that President Obama was to blame for having "moved the goalposts" in the sequester debate with Republicans over spending and taxes, Mr. Woodward said a senior White House official — later revealed to be senior economic adviser Gene Sperling — said he would "regret" his stance. The press reported the confrontation and many determined that Mr. Woodward had overreacted to the threat.
Many journalists don't understand numbers — a fact that is readily apparent from the reporting on the budget cuts. Fortunately, I do understand numbers after studying accounting and economics, and reporting on federal budgets and business for The Associated Press, Newsweek and ABC News.
The actual reduction in spending would be about $44 billion for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, rather than the $85 billion usually reported. That's what the Congressional Budget Office says on page 11 in its February report (1.usa.gov/YUrA3u).
Defense expenditures take the biggest hit of $22 billion, or 3.3 percent. Nondefense spending gets a $22 billion cut, or less than 1 percent. No cuts will be made to Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and a myriad of other nondefense programs.
Some people will be affected. But the scenarios in the media of financial Armageddon are simply over the top. Some of the programs may — and I emphasize may — be affected include:
Government workers may see unpaid furloughs of up to 30 days a year. Others may disagree, but I certainly would like to see fewer government workers.
Reduced overtime pay may slow down airport security checkpoints. Can airport security really get any worse?
Colleges and universities may see fewer federal research grants. As a college professor, I think higher education will be able to scrape by.
Rather than focusing on the sky-is-falling meme, the media need to dig much deeper in the weeks ahead and eliminate the fear-mongering. Sequestration may not be the best approach to management of the federal government, but it is better than raising taxes and spending more money. Just take a look at the numbers.
• Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for AP, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20" for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.