The PBS story, Mindless Budget Reporting: Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by Dean Baker talks about an example of Greenberg’s Law of The Media. Baker is castigating a report in The New York Times.
“A plan by House leaders to cut $40 billion from the food stamp program — twice the amount of cuts proposed in a House bill that failed in June — threatens to derail efforts by the House and Senate to work together to complete a farm bill before agriculture programs expire on Sept. 30.”
The problem with this description of the Republican plan is that the proposed cut of $40 billion is supposed to be over a 10-year budget window, not a single year. (The Republicans want to cut the food stamp budget by 5 percent, not 50 percent.) This information is not reported anywhere in the article. As a result, even a very intelligent and extremely knowledgeable person like Krugman could read through the piece and be off by a factor of 10 in his understanding of the size of the proposed cuts.
One of the ways Greenberg’s Law is demonstrated is to give us a number out of context. You are obviously supposed to infer that the number illustrates some point that the reporter is implying, but you are never given the context to judge whether the desired inference is correct. It is unlikely that the reporter knows whether the desired inference is correct.
Baker is correct that all you know is that it is a large number. If you don’t know whether it is over 1 year or 10, or what fraction it is of the budget, or how this government spending compares to the spending of the corporate sector under similar circumstances, then you have no idea if the number is too large, too small, or just about right. However, your thinking about the matter has been prejudiced by the report. Because of this, you might come away from reading or hearing the story with less knowledge than you started with.
Sort of like all of Faux Noise, the more you watch, the less you know.