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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bizzyblog's Tom Blumer And A New York Times Writer Go Mano a Mano: Timesman Posts Comment On Blumer's Blog

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- Ohio's Bizzyblogger Tom Blumer ripped The New York Times for underplaying personal income data to make the Bush years seem dismal. New York Times staff writer David Cay Johnston promptly fired right back with a long comment on Blumer's Website that defended the attack on his economic analytical skills. It wasn't so long ago that journalists ignored blogs, or deemed them too unimportant to dive in with comments. Now a sea change: They appear ready to duke it out. Kudos to Mr. Blumer for attracting such attention. And kudos to Mr. Johnston for punching back. Everyone benefits from the dialogue.

Click the link (above) to Blumer's post, then eyeball Johnson's response, which appears verbatim below. The Timesman says he didn't get into the news biz to make things up:

"You make interesting points — and also some unfair ones, especially leaping to the conclusion that I am dishonest.
"The idea that in the most scrutinized news report in the world I could twist facts for some venal purpose is laughable. We fire reporters who do that and we should.
I have been active in exposing dishonest reporting since 1973. I am the only reporter whose expose of news manipulations and blackouts lead to a broadcast station being sold to avoid losing their licenses (six stations were sold). I have many other published articles on such issues over the decades in both newspapers and journalism publications.
"Readers and reporters can reasonably disagree on what is significant and the choices in the limited space and time I had.
"I did not get into this line of work more than 40 years ago to make things up or twist them. If I wanted to I would have become a novelist or a screenwriter.
I got into it to tell people things they did not know and would not know but for my work. That’s the joy of it. And throughout my career I have found things were not at all as I imagined, including in the world of tax that I have covered for more than a dozen years.
"Given your jaundice it may surprise you to know that I was the reporter — the only reporter — to do the calculations revealing that the very highest income America got a much bigger tax cut from a law signed by Clinton than they did from Bush, reporting this several times in articles and with detailed graphics.
"That is to say, I report the numbers the same way regardless of who is in the White House or any other position of power. My focus is on what happens after the politicians speak and enact laws, not on what they say.
"When I write about one-year changes bloggers criticize me for not taking a longer look at the data. In this article I focused on the peak of the previous economic expansion (and compare it to results going back to 1945) and you accuse me of being dishonest for not cherry picking data from the late 90s.
"It is reasonable to disagree about whether using the high point of the last economic expansion is the most informing measure. It is certainly common to use this measure. Making that choice is neither dishonest nor absurd.
"Behind my article today are extensive spreadsheets I did analyzing the data by income group, components of income (wages, dividends, etc.) and other factors. I then took care to not cherry pick the data, but to select those data points that exemplified what careful checking and cross checking showed. There are problems with using this analysis because of what might be called income bracket creep, which cannot be backed out from the data I relied on.
"EITC is not in the IRS data, which you use as a cudgel against my work. This money totals less than a half of one percent of all income (and is not market income). There are other forms of income not counted as well that you do not mention. For example, this administration and has said that there is widespread and significant understating of non-wage incomes at the top, as did the last.
"That is to say, there is no perfect measure and my article identified the measure I used — income tax data.
"Not in my report today was this finding from my analysis, which in light of your closing comments you may want to ponder:
"Among the under $100,000 income group, comparing 2005 to 2004, the number of taxpayers rose 0.5%, total real AGI fell by -$73 billion, or -1.9 percent, and average AGI incomes declined by -$801 from $33,847 to $33,046.
"In the year 2000 the average AGI (in 2005$) of those making under $100,000 was $35,286. That means, compared to 2005, that average incomes in this group are down -$2,240 or -6.3 percent from the peak year of the economic expansion.
"The figures are not directly comparable because some people moved up and out of that bracket. However, in 2000 this group comprised 90.7% of all taxpayers and it is now 88% of all taxpayers.But that is also not a large change in share of taxpayers.
I cite this to show the care I take to analyze the data fully before I wrote about it and to make sure anomalies are not treated as substance.
"The fact is that average incomes remain below their peak and when you look at groups below $1 million of AGI, which 99.77 percent of all taxpayers in 2005, the declines are clear. It suggests that my reportorial observation about many people feeling economic stress (of which there is plenty of evidence from polls and other sources) is not absurd and does not lack a reasonable basis for mentioning.
"The growth in incomes from 2002 to 2003 is statistically insignificant at 0.2 percent or $99, contrary to your assertions about how many years we have had growth in average incomes.
"Whatever the data show is what I report. If, for example, the data showed that the incomes of those at the bottom were rising I would report that. Oh, gosh, I did report this morning that the number of Americans reporting very low incomes declined by more than 5 percent. That could have been the lede, but average incomes provides a broader measure of greater interest so I lead with that. Reasonable people can disagree without resorting to attacking the reporter’s integrity.
"Comment by David Cay Johnston — August"

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