- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

A newspaper’s prime “real estate” is on Page One, above the fold. This is where it highlights the day’s most important stories. Usually, the news itself dictates what will occupy a paper’s most important space.

So when this territory is turned over to a politically charged story that is not time-sensitive, a paper sends an important message about what it wants readers to know.

Consequently, it is revealing that The Washington Post devoted half the space on Page One above the fold to an advertisement for John Kerry on Sept. 20. It wasn’t really an advertisement, of course, but it might as well have been. The whole thrust of the article was to support Mr. Kerry’s charge that Republican policies are impoverishing the middle class.

If the facts supported The Post’s analysis, this would be an interesting story, though I don’t see how it could ever conceivably justify Page One status. It isn’t as though we haven’t heard it many, many times before.

In 1984, 1988 and 1992, The Post ran innumerable reports about the imminent disappearance of the middle class and other doom-and-gloom stories. Oddly, I don’t recall any such articles in 1996, when Bill Clinton ran for re-election, even though the data would have supported the same analysis.

The reason is the media have a template — Republicans are for the rich, Democrats represent the middle class. Any data confirming this is reported — often on Page One — while any contradictory data are ignored or buried on back pages.

It is exactly this sort of thing that recently got CBS in trouble over forged documents. All the elite media tend to accept uncritically any information supporting a liberal worldview. Anything going in the opposite direction is subjected to strict scrutiny. Also, stories with a liberal worldview are allowed to appear without a contrary perspective, whereas those supporting a conservative view must always be “balanced” with lots of quotes from the other side.

Looking at The Post’s story, we can see many ways in which the data have been manipulated to give it a liberal spin. For example, there is a Page One graph showing the percentage of households earning $35,000 to $49,999 (in 2003 dollars) has fallen sharply from 22.3 percent in 1967 to just 15 percent in 2003. At first glance, this would seem powerful evidence for The Post/Kerry thesis the middle class is disappearing.

In the pre-Internet age, people might have bought this argument, since they lacked any way to check it. But today, anyone with an Internet connection can log on to this address and find the facts for themselves: https://www.census. gov/prod/2004pubs/p60-226.pdf.

They will discover that The Post’s data are accurate, but leave out what is really important. Over this same period, 1967 to 2003, the percentage of families making less than $35,000 (in 2003 dollars) also fell from 52.8 percent of households to just 40.9 percent. In short, the ranks of the middle class could not have fallen because they became poor, as The Post implies, because the ranks of the poor also fell.

Poor and middle class households alike actually became better off, which increased the ranks of the “rich” (those making more than $49,999 in 2003 dollars in The Post’s view) as a share of the population. In 1967, those with such an income were 24.9 percent of households. By 2003, this had risen to 44.1 percent. The inescapable conclusion is the declining ranks of the middle class result from one thing — more are now “rich.”

In fairness, The Post presents a graph making this point, although there is nothing in the text of the article. But it is constructed to make it seem the rich have gained at the expense of the middle class, instead of explaining that many in the middle class are now rich by The Post’s definition.

The Post story plays fast and loose with the data in other ways as well. For example, it notes that the top 20 percent of households had more than half of all income in 2001, as if that is the most recent data. In fact, we have data from the Census Bureau for 2002 and 2003, which show the top quintile’s share has fallen to under 50 percent in both years. It’s a trivial point, but shows how hard The Post tries to make things look worse than they really are.

Unfortunately, The Post has promised more articles on this same subject — this was first in a series. We can only hope they get better, but I doubt it.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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