Daily Archives: May 20, 2009

Actual, non-factual

justin farmer 5.20.09There he goes again.  Justin Farmer is blowing the whistle on wasteful government spending.  Just like last time, the story is designed to make the viewer angry at the stupidity of government.  When Farmer clobbered UGA for sending some of its professors overseas for “academic enrichment,” UGA challenged Farmer’s methodology.  This time, his methodology is even more suspect.

First off, Farmer bases his report on interviews with two members of Congress.  One is Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia of Roswell.  The other is Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma.  It appears both men were interviewed in their Congressional offices by somebody other than Farmer.  Their remarks are boilerplate, and unchallenged.  They could have come straight from a Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee feed, though we’d like to believe that an actual reporter was somewhere in the room when the interviews took place.

Farmer begins on what appears to be pretty solid ground, with a line about government subsidies for dead farmers.  Sure it’s outrageous.  It was also reported by the Washington Post in July 2007.  But it’s news to Farmer, and Rep. Coburn gets an opportunity to decry its wastefulness on WSB.

Farmer then reports that Sen. Coburn “was able to convince Congress to stop funding a stress reduction center here at the CDC, once it was revealed that nearly $400,000 was spent on zero gravity chairs, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas for CDC employees to relax.”  Farmer recites this line in a slick standup with post-produced graphics.

Sounds awful.  It’s also wrong.

justin farmer2 5.20.09Yes, the CDC bought a stress reduction center (or fitness center if you prefer, with exercise machines and such).  Yes, the whole thing cost nearly 400k.  But the evidence is that the lights, chairs and saunas cost about $35,000.  Coburn stopped that, apparently.  And sure, you could say it’s silly.  But it ain’t “nearly $400,000” as Farmer reported.

And curiously, Farmer probably knew this.  Following the erroneous standup, he reported “the CDC says Senator Coburn is wrong.”  But Coburn didn’t get it wrong — Farmer did.  Farmer interviewed a CDC spokesman who corrected the information.  So WSB didn’t completely mislead its audience — much. But if you know the information is wrong, why put it on TV to begin with?

(Might it be because he’d already shot a damn fine standup — with graphics and everything — and didn’t want to re-do it?  What other excuse could there be?)

Farmer concludes the piece on familiar ground:  Bashing academic research.  “This one may take the cake,” Farmer tells his audience.  He reports on a government grant for “a Detroit professor to study drinking and AIDS among prostitutes in China.”   It’s a one-line dismissal, presuming that there’s no value in this kind of research.

With the UGA piece, Farmer mostly explored a few issues and made an effort to give the piece balance.  Here, the only balance is on the CDC spending — the only local reporting he apparently did.  And he managed to get it wrong.

The news business is more forgiving than you’d think.  You don’t have to get it right all the time.  But you do have make a good faith effort to get the facts right, and sincerely believe that what you’re reporting is correct.

Even if it means shooting the standup again.  Grade:  F+