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Davis Merritt: Knightfall
Knight Ridder, which owned the Wichita Eagle, sold itself out recently to McClatchy Newspapers, the new owner of the Eagle. While Knight Ridder had plenty of problems itself -- see the book by former Eagle editor Davis Merritt, Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk -- they've done a consistently better job of reporting from Iraq than any other major US news organization. One always worries when one bunch of capitalists sell out to another, richer, group -- after all, being richer is most often a sign of being more corrupt these days. And the general trend in media is toward concentration of ownership with all of the political connections that implies, and toward the propagation of the trivial. Still, the first McClatchy byline I've noticed in the Eagle came as a shock. I may have repressed something, but this is about as stupid as any news article I can recall. The reporter is Ely Portillo, and the title is "Costs of teen drinking add up to $62 billion":
The first paragraph starts off with an apples-to-oranges error, comparing costs of one thing (teenage drinking) to expenses on another (Katrina reconstruction). What the federal government has paid to date for Katrina reconstruction isn't a very good measure of Katrina's damage. Estimates of Katrina damage start at $100 billion and go up from there. But to be comparable you'd have to come up with a set of Katrina damage estimates that was consistent with the methods and valuations used in the teenage drinking study. The Katrina estimates rarely consider anything beyond property damage. Certainly there is a lot more cost "such as lost work hours and lowered quality of life," but putting a value on that sort of thing is hard to do, and the result would mostly be to inflate the costs and confuse the issues.
Most likely, that's why these researchers do just that. They want to get attention, and one easy way to con the gullible is by running up a huge tab. No problem: that's why spreadsheets were invented: just fudge the numbers until you get the results you want. Sometimes, as this story demonstrates, you can even fudge the numbers so far the results become absurd. $62 billion is a lot of money: two Buffetts, half a Katrina, several months of Iraq war (no clear agreement on how to audit that; the US budget there shortchanges the real costs worse than the US budget for Katrina repair). It's hard to see how we never noticed a cost of that magnitude, although I suppose there are other examples -- e.g., global warming.
However, repeating the study's headlines isn't news -- just PR. To make any sense out of this as a story, we need more info: who are these clowns? who do they work for? what are their methods? how do those methods stack up against standard scientific practices? This isn't on-the-spot reporting, like at a car wreck or plane crash, where limited information may still be newsworthy. This type of story only matters if you can put it into some sort of context. Otherwise, it's just nonsense. Which in this case is probably what in depth analysis would finally conclude. Guess McClatchy had some space to kill. It's not like there's any real news to report.