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How Not To Inform The Public, By The New York Times

Everybody knows that poilticians like to fudge budget numbers. Specifcially, they use optimistic projections and intellectual sleight of hands to make their initiatives look better. Whether it's tax cuts or new spending programs, they offer all kinds of benefits and yet, magically, manage not to cost that much money.

Still, some politicians are more honest than others. A lot more. To take one easy example, Bill Clinton and his advisers may have over-estimated the savings the administration's ill-fated health care plan might have yielded. But they never pulled the kind of intellectual shenanigans that the Bush Administration did with its tax cut, the Medicare drug plan, or the cost of the Iraq War.

Now history is repeating itself. All three of the remaining presidential candidates have put forward ambitious plans for their would-be presidencies. With Clinton and Obama, the ambition lies primarily with their new spending proposals, chief among them universal health insurance. In McCain's case, the ambition consists primarily of reducing taxess, starting with the preservation of the Bush tax cuts. And while all three candidates promise simultaneously to reduce the deficit, it's almost certainly true that all three candidates are over-promising. There probably isn't enough money to fund all of Clinton and Obama's spending if they're serious about deficit reduction, just as there probably isn't enough money to fund McCain's tax cuts if he's serious about reducing the deficit. 

But there's a huge difference in how far off they are. According to a group of budget analysts cited in Sunday's New York Times, McCain's plan could add $5.7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Clinton and Obama's plan would add about a third as much.

Clinton and Obama can probably achieve most of their goals either by trimming (rather than ditching) some proposals, finding a politically acceptable way to raise a few taxes, or letting the deficit grow at a moderate rate. (Or, most likely, some combination of the three.) McCain, by contrast, is going to have to jettison some of his ideas altogether. Either he'll have to let go of those tax cuts or he'll have to let the deficit explode.

This is, arguably, a very important distinction--one about which the voters should know, as it says a lot about the candidates' honesty and ability to govern. The Times deserves great credit for highlighting it.

But I suspect many readers of the Sunday Times didn't grasp this distinction. In fact, I suspect many came away with the very opposite impression about the candidates--i.e., that they're all equally irresponsible. The reason is the story's headline, "3 CANDIDATES WITH THREE FINANCIAL PLANS, BUT ONE DEFICIT," and the first two paragarphs, which read as follows:

The Republican and Democratic presidential candidates differ strikingly in their approaches to taxes and spending, but their fiscal plans have at least one thing in common: each could significantly swell the budget deficit and increase the national debt by trillions of dollars, according to tax and budget experts.

The reasons reflect the ideological leanings of the candidates, with Senator John McCain proposing tax cuts that go beyond President Bush’s and the Democrats advocating programs costing hundreds of billions of dollars. But for fiscal experts concerned with the deficit, both approaches are worrisome.

"One deficit." "One thing in common." "Both approaches are worrisome." It's not until the fifth pargarph that the story gets around to informing readers that one candidate, McCain, is making promises that are wildly more unrealistic than the others.

It's just one article, of course, but it's also indicative of a broader phenomenon in campaign coverage: Journalists trying so hard to seem even-handed that they end up distorting reality. I have no idea whether it was the reporters or editors who chose to frame this particular story this way. Either way, though, it was a poor, if all too typical, decision.

--Jonathan Cohn