Pentagon Budgets and Fuzzy Math

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Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Pentagon Budgets and Fuzzy Math

By the tone of  some of the media coverage, you might have thought Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a plan to slash military spending yesterday.  On the front page of USA Today (1/27/12), under the headline "Panetta Backs Far Leaner Military," readers learn in the first paragraph:

The Pentagon's new plan to cut Defense spending means a reduction of 100,000 troops, the retiring of ships and planes and closing of bases--moves that the Defense secretary said would not compromise security.

The piece quotes critics of the cuts like Sen. Joe Lieberman and an analyst at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. And the article talks about the most commonly cited figure of $487 billion in cuts over 10 years. As economist Dean Baker writes about such coverage--"Military Budget Cuts: Denominator Please"--there is no way people can assess the significance of what sounds like a lot of money if they don't know how much the Pentagon is planning to spend over the same 1o-year period--roughly $8 trillion.

The PBS NewsHour did little to clarify the issue. The broadcast began with Jeffrey Brown announcing, "The Pentagon today outlined almost half a trillion dollars in budget cuts that would shrink the size of the U.S. military by trimming ground forces, retiring ships and planes, and delaying some new weapons." PBS aired clips from Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich denouncing the budget cuts, and then interviewed a Pentagon official.

Even coverage of the Pentagon's new "austerity" that managed to include some helpful context didn't make things very clear. "The Pentagon took the first major step toward shrinking its budget after a decade of war" was how a New York Times story by Elisabeth Bumiller (1/27/12) begins. In the fourth paragraph, readers found this:

Even though the Defense Department has been called on to find $259 billion in cuts in the next five years--and $487 billion over the decade--its base budget (not counting the costs of Afghanistan or other wars) will rise to $567 billion by 2017. But when adjusted for inflation, the increases are small enough that they will amount to a slight cut of 1.6 percent of the Pentagon's base budget over the next five years.

So the "first major step" in cutting the military budget... isn't really a cut?

A Washington Post piece by Craig Whitlock (1/27/12) had a more accurate lead--"The Pentagon budget will shrink slightly next year"-- but later tries to make a 1 percent cut sound more significant: "While the difference may sound small, it represents a new era of austerity for the Defense Department."

To make matters even more confusing, the Post points out later that

Although the defense budget will decline next year, to $525 billion from this year's $531 billion, under Obama's current projections it will inch upward in constant dollars between 1 percent and 2 percent annually thereafter.

Kudos to Nancy Yousef of McClatchy for writing a piece (1/26/12) that took a different tack. Under the headline "Defense Budget Plan Doesn't Cut as Deeply as Pentagon Says," Yousef led with this:

Pentagon officials on Thursday announced the outlines of what they called a pared-down defense budget, but their request would increase baseline spending beyond the projected end of the war in Afghanistan, even as they plan to reduce ground forces.

To Yousef, the Pentagon was " employing a definition of the term 'reduction' that may be popular in Washington but is unconventional anywhere else."

And activist/writer David Swanson pointed out that the first question at Panetta's briefing got right at this question of whether the cuts are really cut. From the transcript:

Mr. Secretary, you talked a little bit on this, but over the next 10 years, do you see any other year than this year where the actual spending will go down from year to year? And just to the American public more broadly, how do you sort of explain what appears to be contradictory, as you talk about, repeatedly, this $500 billion in cuts in a Defense Department budget that is actually going to be increasing over time?

Panetta's answer:

Yeah, I think the simplest way to say this is that under the budget that was submitted in the past, we had a projected growth level for the Defense budget. And that growth would've provided for almost $500 billion in growth. And we had obviously dedicated that to a number of plans and projects that we would have. That's gotta be cut, and that's a real cut in terms of what our projected growth would be.

See the new release from the Institute for Public Accuracy for more of the context largely missing from the Pentagon budget coverage.

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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