Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Buried lead | Government

April 2, 2005

Budget Sucks—but At Least It's On-Time!

In the New York Times's twisted report card for Albany's new budget, punctuality counts for more than math skills.

Carl Bialik

For passing a budget by the April 1 deadline, New York state legislators got fawning coverage from the New York Times on Friday. A front-page article, a news analysis, and a feature all focused on the budget's punctuality, and not on its substance.

"The budget, which may still face challenges from Gov. George E. Pataki, could end two decades of governmental dysfunction that had paralyzed local governments year after year and had made state legislators a national laughingstock," the front-page story said. The news analysis trumpeted the "first-in-a-generation accomplishment." Both the news analysis and a sidebar on legislators' exultation seemed to think that noticing the partisan self-congratulation was incisive enough; no need for much critique of the budget itself.

Had the Times chosen a different tack, this bit that begins in the 14th paragraph of the lead article might have made for more substantial budget coverage: "New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reminded Albany of its work ahead, particularly in ... addressing a court decision that said New York's 1.1 million public school students had been shortchanged for years. This year's budget includes $848 million more in education spending than last year's, with most of the additional money going to districts outside New York City. A state judge ruled last month that an additional $1.4 billion must be spent in the coming school year on the city's ailing schools alone, but it was clear that that mandate would not be heeded."

In the sidebar, this school-funding dispute was trivialized in the—you guessed it—14th paragraph. "In the Senate, the only real slowdown in passing bills came as several Democrats rose to quibble over some details: The fact that the budget did not include more school aid and the modest financing for cultural and arts programs." Evidently, the New York Times is not a detail-oriented paper.

The Poughkeepsie Journal, on the other hand, noticed the school-funding problem in a nine-paragraph article that began, "New York has a court decision ordering it to change the way it funds local schools, but that didn't stop lawmakers from divvying up this year's money pretty much the way they always have."

On Thursday, the Tonawanda News had the right idea. In an editorial, the paper noted the expected shortfall for city schools, the needs of upstate schools, and the void of spending cuts. The editorial concludes: "If a budget is in place by Friday, it will be a token budget only, and for that, they shouldn't expect a pat and a treat."

Yet a pat and a treat is just what the Times gave state legislators. Perhaps this was the editors' idea of an April Fools joke.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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