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Daily Howler: The GOP made a rather weak claim. But Dan Eggen bungled again
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THE THREE PERCENT ACCUSATION! The GOP made a rather weak claim. But Dan Eggen bungled again: // link // print // previous // next //

Specter’s fingerprints: Did Arlen Specter really say those things about his Republican colleagues? If so, why have his colorful, newsworthy comments gone so little mentioned?

Last Friday, Ryan Grim penned this report at The Huffington Post. Specter says various newsworthy things, in particular, he claims that many fellow Republicans were secret supporters of the stimulus package. Here’s the most colorful part of Grim’s report:

GRIM (2/13/09): "I think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints, without their participation," [Specter] said.

Specter was asked, How many of your colleagues?

"I think a sizable number," he said. "I think a good part of the caucus agrees with the person I quoted, but I wouldn't want to begin to speculate on numbers.”

Indeed, Specter had already quoted a fellow Republican solon. This solon praised Specter’s pro-stimulus stance, but said he would have to vote no on the package:

GRIM: “When I came back to the cloak room after coming to the agreement a week ago today," said Specter, "one of my colleagues said, 'Arlen, I'm proud of you.' My Republican colleague said, 'Arlen, I'm proud of you.' I said, 'Are you going to vote with me?' And he said, 'No, I might have a primary.' And I said, 'Well, you know very well I'm going to have a primary.'"

That was remarkably newsworthy stuff. But to whom had Specter been speaking when he made these colorful comments? Somewhat oddly, Grim’s report didn’t say. Perhaps for that reason, these alleged statements by Specter have been cited almost nowhere in the mainstream press. (They haven’t even gotten much play on the liberal web.) As of this morning, Nexis records only two citations of Specter’s colorful “fingerprints” comment. Here’s one of the two, by Karen Heller, in Tuesday’s Philly Inquirer. (From Heller’s account, you’d tend to think that Specter made this newsworthy comment speaking to her in an interview.)

To whom did Specter make these remarks? Grim probably should have spelled that out in his report—but later, he posted an UPDATE. “Listen to the audio,” it said, and it offered a link you could click. But we haven’t been able to make the audio work. Two associates have tried and failed too.

To whom did Specter make those remarks? Beyond that, can you make the audio work? We’ve tried, and failed, for several days now. As quoted, Specter’s comments are highly newsworthy. Why haven’t these remarks made the news?

Cable pundits have speculated, at length, about Republican motives concerning this package. But according to Nexis, no one has asked Specter to elaborate on his striking remarks. Assuming the audio can be heard loud and clear, that strikes us as fairly remarkable. To whom did Specter make those remarks? Can you make the audio work?

THE THREE PERCENT ACCUSATION: How poorly does the upper-end press corps handle matters of substance? Consider what happened in Sunday’s Post, when Dan Eggen tried, for the second time, to discuss Republican claims about “pork” in the stimulus package.

Last Friday, Eggen largely bungled a news report on this topic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/13/09). His report appeared beneath a groaningly imprecise headline: “Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork.” As we noted, Eggen made no attempt, at any point in his piece, to quantify the amount of pork encompassed by the word “some.” According to Eggen, “many Republicans” said that the final bill was “still larded with wasteful spending.” But at no point were these critics asked to quantify this claim.

How much “pork” might there be in the package? In Sunday’s Post, Eggen took a second shot at the topic—and he bungled all over again.

Friday’s headline had spoken of “pork;” Sunday’s headline talked about “gifts.” (“Certain Firms, Industries Got Last-Minute Gifts in Stimulus.”) But in this, his second try at the topic, Eggen manage to include an actual number when he cited the GOP’s complaints about all the wild Democratic spending. This passage was better than Friday’s attempt. But it wasn’t better by much:

EGGEN (2/15/09): Republicans—all but three of whom opposed the bill—accused Democrats of going on a “spending spree” and have identified $25 billion in narrow provisions that they deem "questionable or non-stimulative." Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the leading opponents, said Congress had "reverted to its bad habit of larding up bills with special interest pork projects that stimulate reelection campaigns rather than the economy.”

Republicans were talking tough, according to this second report; Dems had allegedly “larded” the bill with “pork,” as part of a “spending spree.” But this time, omigod! Eggen actually included a number! “Republicans” had identified $25 billion in such provisions, the scribe magisterially said.

Presto! THE HOWLER had gotten results! In Friday’s report about that “pork,” Eggen didn’t require Republicans to quantify their complaints at all—and we howled about this omission. Two days later, he cited a price tag. But uh-oh! Another number was groaningly AWOL from this second report.

According to Eggen, Republicans had “identified $25 billion” in spending provisions which were “questionable or non-stimulative.” Presumably, Eggen referred to this list by New Jersey Rep. Scott Garrett; we can’t find the quoted language anywhere else, and Garrett’s list of bogus spending matches the amount Eggen cites. But readers! The price tag for the stimulus package as a whole came to $787 billion! Incomparably, we asked our mathematical staff to do some long division.

The bill’s overall cost was $787 billion—and Republicans claimed $25 billion in larded-up pork. We waited anxiously by our phone as the analysts divided that 25 by that much-larger 787. And then, at last! We had the number! The GOP’s allegation of pork and lard came to 3.2 percent!

That’s right! According to Republican allegations, only 3.2 percent of the bill constituted a spending spree involving larded-up pork! Only 3.2 percent—a rather minuscule amount. You’d almost think that this percentage might have appeared in Eggen’s report. But given the way this press corps works, numbers like that will appear in the Post about the time pigs, and related pork products, fly. Modern journalists don’t do policy, as Eric Boehlert noted last week. And uh-oh! When such scriveners try to do policy, their lack of practice shows.

What a truly remarkable number! By Eggen’s account, Republicans had made a “three percent accusation!” They were alleging that only 3 percent of this bill was larded-up spending-spree pork! From that fact, a sensible person might well suspect that the actual percentage was substantially smaller. But it didn’t seem to occur to Eggen that this was a very modest allegation. He didn’t serve readers by converting the Republican claim ($25 billion) into a helpful percentage (3 percent). He didn’t ask Republican leaders why their claim of larded-up pork involved a small part of the bill.

For ourselves, we don’t really know what we think of the overall bill. In large part, we aren’t real sure because of reporting like Eggen’s. Even at the very top of the press, there has been very little attempt to examine critiques of the stimulus package. The claim that the bill was larded with pork was one of the most ubiquitous criticisms. But Eggen wasn’t up to the task of conducting even the simplest analysis. The claim doesn’t seem to amount to much. But with reporting this weak, who can tell?

Percentages were invented a long time ago—but they haven’t yet arrived at the Post. It was rude to say it, but do you see why we used a key word last Friday: Dumb? The GOP had made a three percent allegation—and three percent is a rather small portion. Eggen, given two shots at the prize, just kept forgetting to say.

Reinforcing a rather weak claim: Meanwhile, it actually matters when claims about “some pork” appear in headlines in the Post. In the wake of Eggen’s initial report, we saw this universally acknowledged truth acted out on two occasions.

On Friday morning, the headline on Eggen’s report talked about “some pork.” That evening, Charles Krauthammer appeared on Special Report and fulminated thusly:

KRAUTHAMMER (2/13/09): Well, and Pelosi is right—it is historic. It is probably the greatest abomination in American legislative history. It is not only the content here—the content which, as we know, including $8 billion for rapid transit which includes a pet project of Senator Reid of Nevada, which is a mag-lev monstrosity that connects Anaheim, Disneyland and Vegas, known as “The Fantasyland Express,” exactly what the country needs in dire economic straits.

According to Charles, the stimulus bill was “probably the greatest abomination in American legislative history.” To support this remarkable claim, he sampled straight from Eggen’s report. That $8 billion for rapid transit made this the worst bill in American history! But uh-oh! Eggen had made a very weak attempt to examine complaints about that rail money. For Kevin Drum’s take on that very provision, you know what to do—just click here.

Charles, of course, would have thundered like that no matter what Eggen reported. A more serious consequence of Eggen’s report appeared in the next morning’s Post. A self-professed Democratic voter had read the report—and she had picked up on the claim about “pork.” As we read her letter, we couldn’t help wondering if this lady had perhaps gotten tooken:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (2/14/09): Could someone explain to me how a rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas (“Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork,” news story, Feb. 13) will stimulate anything but the standing of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) among his constituents?

What happened to “no pork” in this legislation? If you want to put money in the rail lines, improve what we have on the East Coast and do something to reduce the prices. Who do our esteemed elected officials think will use this rail line? People who go to Vegas don't take the train.
I voted for a Democratic senator, a Democratic president and a Democratic representative. If this is what I am getting for my vote, maybe I need to rethink that next time. Enough money has been wasted. It's time to stop throwing good money after bad.
P— P—
Burke [Virginia]

The lady seemed to think the bill’s provisions for high-speed rail were “pork,” although Drum, for example, had said just the opposite. Had this lady perhaps gotten tooken by Eggen’s slapdash reporting? Along with his failure to quantify the GOP’s allegations, Eggen had offered a fleeting review of the provisions for high-speed rail. But this lady had read what he wrote, and she’d stolen a glance at that headline. What happened to “no pork” in this bill? she angrily sat down and asked.

Her letter appeared in the Post the next day, reinforcing a rather weak three percent accusation. On Friday, a headline had pimped GOP talking-points. The next day, this letter did too.