During a recent White House visit by Tony Blair, President Bush claimed his administration had tripled its aid to Africa in the last four years. The claim was widely reported, but was it true? Not exactly. Brooke talks to Jamison Foser of the progressive watchdog group Media Matters about why journalists seem to be biased against… doing the math.
BOG GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. During British Prime Minister Tony Blair's June visit to the White House, he urged the wealthiest nations to double their aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. President Bush resisted that pressure by reassuring Blair and the American people that the U.S. was already one step ahead.
PRESIDENT BUSH: America will continue to lead the world to meet our duty in helping the world's most vulnerable people. Over the past four years we have tripled our assistance to Sub-Sahara Africa.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bush's statement signified a major commitment, a month ahead of the G8 Summit which was slated to focus on Africa, and as such, his claim was widely reported.
REPORTER: He says the U.S. has over four years tripled its overall aid to Africa.
CORRESPONDENT: Mr. Bush said he'd tripled aid to Africa over four years. [SOUND OF BABY CRYING]
REPORTER: So you are confident more money will be forthcoming, despite the fact that aid to Africa has tripled in the last four years to 3.2 billion dollars, which is very significant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But--was it true? Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution crunched the numbers and discovered, well--no. Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group, tracked how the press reported the President's misleading math. Media Matters' senior advisor Jamison Foser joins us now. Jamison, welcome to the show.
JAMISON FOSER: Thanks a lot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, can you explain what the President got wrong in his claim that the U.S. has tripled aid to Africa.
JAMISON FOSER: Sure. Basically the Bush Administration is claiming that aid to Africa has gone up from roughly one billion dollars in 2000 to roughly three billion dollars in 2004, which sure sounds a lot like a tripling. The problem is that they haven't released any details about where those numbers come from. The fact sheets that the State Department has put out just contain their own numbers. So Dr. Rice tried to look at it and find out where they came up with those numbers. And her analysis, at least, suggests that they're comparing basically developmental aid in 2000, which includes children's health and the Africa Bank and things like that to a much broader category of aid in 2004 that includes not only that development aid, but also military aid and disaster relief and things like that. And that strongly suggests that if you were to make an apples to apples comparison, I think the number that Dr. Rice came up with was about a 60 percent increase, rather than a tripling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you found though that many newspapers repeated the President's claim. USA Today did a few times, AP did a few times, the New York Times did a few times. Was there anything that struck you about the way this fact was repeated?
JAMISON FOSER: Well, a variety of papers got it wrong in a variety of ways. Some of them repeated what the Bush Administration was claiming as though it were a fact. They didn't even say "the Bush Administration claims," they just reported "the Bush Administration has tripled aid," Some others did present it as what the Bush Administration was saying but didn't offer any attempts to get to the truth. And some presented sort of as a he-said/she-said. They said the Bush Administration says they've tripled it, but critics say they haven't. The constant was that nobody really took the time to figure out who was right. One interesting thing was that several news organizations, including the Associated Press, reported in late June that Dr. Rice at the Brookings Institution had debunked these numbers. But then within a week, that same news organization, the Associated Press, was again reporting that the Bush Administration said they've tripling funding, without including any indication that that may not true or that at least some people have taken issue with the numbers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But do you see this misreporting as an example of bias or simply as an example of how much reporters are flummoxed by budget numbers?
JAMISON FOSER: Well, I don't really like the word "bias," in part because when people hear it, especially in the context of news reporting they tend to think ideological bias. And I don't think that's what's at play here. I think there are other biases that work, biases against looking into the details of complicated numbers. So I just say that we have seen a consistent problem with news organizations taking particularly sort of budgetary numbers at face value and not looking into what's the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You saw a lot of reporters getting this story wrong, but did you find any examples of reporters who did it right?
JAMISON FOSER: You know, we didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, no! [LAUGHS]
JAMISON FOSER: The closest we came, to be honest, was some reporters who offered some decent detail of Dr. Rice's study when it came out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of another numerically complex story that seems to have confounded reporters?
JAMISON FOSER: I'll give you an example of a numerically simple one. In 2002 you couldn't open the newspaper or turn on the television without seeing a report that the Bush Administration was blaming the fact that the budget had gone into deficit on the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The problem is that in August of 2001 the Government Accounting Office said that we went into deficit, and pretty much every major news organization in the country reported that. Several months later, the next year, you had the White House blaming the deficit on September 11th, and news organizations reporting that as though it was true. In fact, the bulk of the deficit was made up of the tax cuts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So getting back to the Africa case for a moment, what do you think the impact of this kind of reporting is, long term, when it comes to aid for Africa?
JAMISON FOSER: Well, I think this plays into a misconception that a lot of people already have for decades. Polls and studies have shown that people consistently overrate how much money we spend on foreign aid. And so when you have an example like this of the Bush Administration and a lot of media organizations telling people that hey look, we've tripled funding to Africa, and they already think we spend a lot more on foreign aid than we do, that's only going to serve to make a lot of people think that we don't need to spend any more, or maybe even we need to spend less. If that's the conclusion people come to based on the facts, so be it. But coming to that conclusion based on false information, is problematic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamison, thank you very much.
JAMISON FOSER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jamison Foser is a senior advisor for mediamatters.com. (MUSIC)
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