For weeks, the news media have been buzzing about earmarks in the recently signed omnibus spending bill. We've been told over and over that the bill is "loaded," "filled," and "stuffed" with earmarks. Since earmarks made up less than 2 percent of the bill's total spending, this is a little like saying Alaska is "filled" with people.
But John McCain doesn't like earmarks, so that's where the media have focused their attention. (OK, there's more to it than that, but not much.) Unfortunately, they've done so in the most juvenile way possible. Following McCain's lead, the media's assessment of the earmarks consists of nothing more than sarcastically listing them, as though they are self-evidently a waste of money. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently described the approach McCain and the Republicans have adopted:
The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.
And the media have gone right along with it, producing news reports about the spending bill that are no more substantive than an adolescent chortle: Heh, heh, he said "pig waste." Heh.
Consider, for example, the honeybee. If you have watched television news or picked up a newspaper in the past several weeks, you've probably heard about federal funding for honeybees.
The assault on the honeybee began with the stimulus package, when CNN and other news organizations dutifully repeated GOP attacks on the inclusion of $150 million for "honeybee insurance." Columnist Charles Krauthammer went so far as to call the bill an "abomination" for including the honeybee insurance.
Now, there are a few things you need to know about the honeybee insurance. First, there was no such funding, according to Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik. Second, if the funding did exist, it would have amounted to somewhere around two one-hundredths of 1 percent of the stimulus package. Third, if the funding existed, it might well have been a wise use of money. We'll come back to that part.
Having had some success ridiculing bee-related spending in the stimulus, Republicans went back to the well during debate over the omnibus spending bill, attacking the inclusion of $1.7 million in funding for honeybee research. And the news media were quick to join in, eagerly repeating the attacks -- and, in many cases, adopting them as their own.
This time, the funding the media ridicules does exist. Progress! Still, there are a couple of important points that the national media left out.
First, the honeybee funding amounted to 0.00041 percent of the bill, or one-half of one penny per American. All earmarks combined represented less than 2 percent of the bill -- crucial facts that were almost never mentioned by the media. Los Angeles Times reporter (and former Laura Bush press secretary) Andrew Malcolm actually defended the media's disproportionate focus on a tiny fraction of spending: "Defenders defensively point out that's 'only' 1 or 2 percent of the total bill. So? To 99.89% of Americans, $7.7 billion is a manure-load of money."
But that's one of the key purposes of government: paying for things collectively that 99.89 percent of us couldn't afford to pay for individually. Not to mention the fact that in focusing on the 1 or 2 percent of the bill that constitutes a "manure-load of money," Malcolm and his ilk are ignoring the 98 or 99 percent of the bill that constitutes 49 or 99 manure-loads of money. See, when people point out that earmarks make up only 1 or 2 percent of the bill, they aren't saying earmarks don't matter, they're saying earmarks don't matter as much as things that make up a significantly larger part of the bill. Malcolm thinks he's serving as vigilant defender of the public purse; in fact, he's distracting attention from things that really cost money. He fails even on his own questionable terms.
Back to the honeybees, and to the other point that has been absent from media coverage of earmarks: Honeybees are pretty important. See, humans need food. Without it, we die. And bees not only produce honey, they pollinate all kinds of crops -- onions, cashews, celery, strawberries, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, apples ... you get the picture. Honeybees play an important role in our food supply, and our economy. And honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate in recent years, for reasons that are not fully known.
Here's how the state of Pennsylvania described the problem last May:
Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff today said the commonwealth will increase funding to continue research on the potentially devastating "Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder."
"Honey bees are critical to Pennsylvania agriculture and to our state's economy," said Wolff. "Pollination from the honey bees determines fruit set and increases fruit quality at an estimated value of $80 million. We can't afford to be lax in dealing with this problem."
According to a study by two Cornell University professors, honeybee pollination accounted for $14.6 billion worth of crops annually between 1996 and 1998.
Honeybee research doesn't sound so funny now, does it?
Now, you can't expect most Americans to know this. Most Americans don't give much thought to bees beyond hoping they don't get stung by one. And that's fine: The life cycle and migratory patterns of bees, and their resultant effects on avocado and cucumber growth, are fairly obscure subjects. We can't, and shouldn't, expect the typical American to know about or act upon these things. After all, there are a lot of obscure but important things that, as a nation, we need to know about and act upon. We can't know about and act upon them all individually; it's literally impossible.
That's another of the reasons we have a government: to know about and act upon the things we cannot know about and act upon individually. It's one of the reasons we watch television and read newspapers, too: They have the resources that we lack to learn about important but obscure things, and the ability to educate us. (This is where some defenders -- and critics -- of the news media will remind me that the media's job isn't to educate the public, much as I might wish it was; their job is to make money. To that I say: How's that working out? Maybe it's time to try a more serious approach.)
Instead, they treat it all like one big joke. Why? Because John McCain told them to -- and the national news media have long served as Ed McMahon to McCain's Johnny Carson. McCain posted a few uninformed wisecracks about earmarks on his Twitter account, and the nation's political reporters unquestioningly repeated his cheap shots verbatim, as though their role in life is to simply bellow "HA! You are correct, sir!" whenever Johnny makes a joke.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, for example, claimed, "It was hard to fault McCain on the merits as he described contents of the $410 billion spending bill," pointing to the honeybee funding as an example. But how would Milbank know? Neither he nor McCain bothered to actually assess the merits. Simply listing "$1.7 million for a honeybee factory in Weslaco, Tex." is not considering the merits. It's pretty much the opposite of considering the merits. But it is as close as Milbank would come.
Milbank went on to quote McCain: " 'What does that mean?' McCain demanded. 'What does "sustainable Las Vegas" mean?' " That's where a serious journalist would have pointed out that it's John McCain's job to know what "sustainable Las Vegas" means, that he has an entire staff to help him find out, and that a few seconds of online research quickly yields an answer: the funding is for an initiative at UNLV that involves "research on water, energy, health care and transportation challenges facing the city and the region, including Arizona and California" and is modeled on a program based in McCain's own state.
A serious journalist might even have pointed out that John McCain pays his Senate staff more than the amount of the earmark in question. Might even have asked which is the bigger waste of taxpayer money -- a program designed to help a rapidly growing region meet its energy, health-care, and transportation needs, or a senator who spends more money paying his staff, but doesn't ask them to find out the purpose of the program he is criticizing?
Dana Milbank did none of those things.
Then there's CNN. The cable channel has cited the honeybee funding several times, never bothering to explain it. Last Saturday, for example, CNN's Josh Levs offered examples of earmarks in the bill -- John McCain's examples, of course: "Take a look. John McCain named some. We're going to show you some examples, $1.7 million for a honeybee factory in Texas, another $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa. There's a million dollars in there for cricket control in Utah."
Then four days later, Levs was back on the air -- and again talking about honeybees and crickets. Asked directly about the cricket control, Levs answered, "Maybe people there have problems with crickets."
Poor Levs, four days after his first report, he was still talking about those crickets -- and still didn't have a clue. I know the nation's newsrooms are facing cutbacks, but they still have Google at CNN, don't they? Type Utah cricket control into the online search engine and the second result is a U.S. Geological Survey report that begins, "Grasshopper and Mormon cricket (Orthoptera) populations periodically build to extremely high numbers and can cause significant economic damage in rangelands and agricultural fields of the Great Plains and Intermountain West."
If you doubt that the news media have been playing Butt-head to the GOP's Beavis, just watch this video of MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell interviewing Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. Here's O'Donnell describing the stimulus bill:
O'DONNELL: It is filled with pork. ... Six-point-six million dollars for termite research. Two-point-two million dollars for the center for grape genetics. One-point-eight million dollars for pig-odor research in Iowa? I mean, come on, Governor. I know you're not in Congress, but this has got to make governors like you mad. You think the people in your state want to pay for $108 million [sic] in taxpayer money going to pig-odor research?
You really have to watch the video to hear how O'Donnell's voice is just dripping with scorn. She doesn't spend so much as a second assessing, or asking about, the merits of the programs. Instead, she just dramatically emphasizes the words "pig-odor research." Heh. Heh. Federal funding to study pig crap! Heh. Heh.
Then Doyle explained that pig odor is actually a pretty big problem for Midwestern agricultural states like his, at which point O'Donnell pretended that her objection all along had been the way the funding came to be -- via earmark -- rather than what it was for. Bull. If her objection had been with the funding mechanism, there would have been no reason to mention what the funding was for, certainly no reason to do so sarcastically. She wasn't commenting on the mechanism, she was behaving like a 12-year-old -- and not a particularly mature 12-year-old, either.
Now, I don't know if the honeybee funding or the cricket funding or the pig-odor research or any of the other earmarks are good ways to spend federal funds. Maybe they're well-run, effective programs that meet an important need, and maybe they aren't. What I do know is that simply cracking jokes about crickets and bees and pig waste rather than taking even 20 seconds to determine what the funding is intended to do is a spectacularly bad way to find out.
America faces great challenges. We are unlikely to meet those challenges through deliberate stupidity.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.