Beat the Press: Is It Time for a Name Change?

July 31, 2017

Given the hostility that President Trump and his followers have directed towards the media, several people have suggested a name change for my blog. While I understand and sympathize with the idea of not promoting violence toward the media, I don’t think BTP has contributed to this sort of hostility.

First, there are different meanings of the word “beat,” and I did intend to play off these differences in choosing the name. There is “beat” as in the sense of the Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. I like to think that in many areas I do a better job of discussing economic issues than most of the media.

For example, I have endlessly harangued reporters about writing large numbers, most importantly budget numbers, without any context. When people hear that the government is spending $20 billion on TANF or $30 billion on foreign aid, they think these are sizable sums. After all, none of us will ever see anything like this amount in our lifetime.

However, as a share of the federal budget these programs are pocket change, with the $20 billion for TANF being roughly 0.5 percent of total spending and $30 billion for foreign aid a bit less than 0.8 percent. Polls consistently show that people hugely over-estimate the share of the budget that goes to foreign aid, TANF, and other anti-poverty programs.

I know that many people want to believe that all their tax dollars go to foreign aid and poor people’s programs because they are racists who hate the people they think of as beneficiaries of these programs. But many of the people who think large shares of the budget go to these programs are not racist, they just hear $20 billion or $30 billion and think that is a lot of money.

It would be a very simple matter if reporters got in the habit of reporting these numbers in some context. Some people might still insist that all of our tax dollars go to TANF even if they constantly heard that it was 0.5 percent of the budget, but my guess is the public would be much better educated.

I consider it one of my BTP victories that I got then NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan to agree with me (with assists from Just Foreign Policy and Media Matters). I thought this would lead to a change in practice at the country’s leading newspaper, but unfortunately not. The big numbers still routinely appear without any context.

There have been a number of other areas where I think my commentary beats the major news outlets in economic reporting. I should say that I think economic reporting has improved considerably in the more than two decades that I have been commenting on it. I’d like to think that my calling attention to some seriously bad practices has played a role.

There is a second meaning of “beat” that also fits the blog. I often have gotten there first. This is certainly true of the housing bubble, where I began warning of the over-valuation of the housing market and the dangers it posed to the economy as early as 2002. More recently, I warned that Obama stimulus would not be large enough to support a healthy recovery almost immediately after it passed. In the last few weeks, as news reports have celebrated Amazon’s soaring stock price twenty years after the company went public, I have been warning that it may not be justified by plausible projections of future earnings. We’ll see if that one proves correct, but in any case, I can say that I have caught a number of important economic developments long before they were widely noted in the media, thereby “beating the press.”

I obviously recognize the pugilistic interpretation of “beat,” but I feel reasonably comfortable that I have not been encouraging anyone to physically assault or threaten reporters. I also don’t think I have encouraged anyone to be abusive in e-mailing, tweeting, or writing to reporters. People do occasionally tell me that they are writing a letter to the editor or a reporter based on one of my posts. When this happens, I encourage them to be polite, and I think they generally are.

I certainly have never heard of any reporter being harassed based on any of my posts. I know many of the reporters whose work I comment on, and some I consider friends. I certainly do not want to see them threatened or harassed.

I am willing to reconsider a renaming if there is evidence that my blog is contributing to a hostile environment for economic reporters and columnists, but for now it will stay as “Beat the Press.”


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