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Today Is the Slowest News Day of the Year. Just Look at the New York Times

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One day’s New York Times front page. The day happens to be Saturday, December 28, 2013, the Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, probably the slowest news day of the year. Of the six stories that make the front page, only one qualifies as news: A federal judge rules that the National Security Agency may continue to gather phone records of private citizens. Less than two weeks ago, another federal judge ruled the precise opposite.

I’m all for the media taking a broader view of what’s important than just things that happened yesterday. But really: "Turkey Legs Conquer Land of Mouse Ears"? It’s about how turkey legs have become a hot snack item at Disney theme parks. I kid you not.

Three of the other four stories—half the stories on the front page—are essentially the same story: Some people get too much money. The fourth is a variation on the theme: Some people get too little money.

  • “Hey Stars. Be Nice to the Stage Hands. “You May Need a Loan.” That clumsy headline obscures the amazing story: “They create the technical razzle-dazzle when the Rockettes take the stage for the ‘Radio City Christmas Spectacular’. They raise the 45-foot-high Christmas Tree….” Still waiting for the amazing part? Well here it is in the third paragraph: Stage hands at major cultural venues in New York get paid an average of $310,000 a year. At Carnegie Hall, five full-time stage hands make an average of $400,000 in salary and benefits. Stagehands at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center get paid more than the the highest paid dancers.” (Yes, it’s that David Koch. He funds a lot of elitish cultural causes  Go figure.)
  • “Police Salaries and Pensions Push California City to Brink.” The lead paragraph tells the story. “DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif.—Emerging from Los Angeles’s vast eastern sprawl, the freeway glides over a narrow pass and slips gently into the scrubby, palm-flecked Coachella Valley.”

OK, maybe the lead doesn’t tell the story. But the piece goes on, “Turn south, and you head into Palm Springs with its megastores, golf courses and bustling shops. Turn north and you make your way up an arid stretch of road…” OK, the second paragraph doesn’t tell the story either. But the third paragraph reveals that Desert Hot Springs is on the verge of bankruptcy “largely because of police salaries and skyrocketing pension costs.”

Deep into the story, we learn that the average pay and benefits of a police officer in Desert Hot Springs is $177,203, compared with a median household income of $31,356. This will be the city’s second bankruptcy. Its first, in 2001, came after losing a $10 million lawsuit by a developer over affordable housing.

  • ”Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward.” This one also starts at a leisurely pace: “Signs of the energy business are inescapable in and around Houston…,” but relatively soon (second paragraph) focuses on a professor at the University of Houston who “sits at the nexus of commerce and academia,” meaning that he makes a pile of money by consulting, speaking, and writing on behalf of the oil industry. How big a pile, the story never reveals. But it may be even more lucrative to be a professor of finance at the University of Houston than to be a stage hand at the Metropolitan Opera. 
  • Finally, there is “Benefits Ending for One Million of Unemployed,” which actually tells the story in the first paragraph: “An emergency federal program that acts as a lifeline for 1.3 million jobless workers will end on Saturday, drastically curtailing government support for the long-term unemployed and setting the stage for a major political fight in the new year.” I guess you’d have to concede that the article doesn’t hide its bias. Who can oppose a “lifeline”? 

So that’s it for page one. Inside is a “too little money” classic: “In Battle Against Fraud in Free Phone Service, the Poor Might Pay the Price.” Fifteen million Americans get 250 free minutes of phone time a month—and a phone—under a Federal program actually called “Lifeline.” To qualify, you have to meet some income requirements or be on Medicaid or food stamps. But it seems that some people are signing up for more than one phone. So the Georgia Public Service Commision is proposing to require service providers to start charging participants five dollars a month, which in some way is supposed to discourage fraud. Without, presumably, too much trouble, the writer finds one woman who says she will be forced to choose between her phone and her prescription drugs.

No, no, no, New York Times! I’m not going to oppose any government welfare program, however idiotic, at a time when Congress is cutting non-idiotic programs like unemployment compensation. And maybe five bucks a month really will push this woman over the edge. But “she won’t be able to afford her prescription drugs” is the heavy artillery in “too little money” stories, and really belongs in the unemployment compensation piece on page one.

So that’s four front page stories and one big inside story, all presented as separate and unrelated to each other, with variations on the same broad theme of income distribution. A coincidence? Yes probably. Or maybe the New York Times is on to something.