Commentary Magazine

“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” Redux

As an addendum to Jennifer Rubin’s thoughtful piece on the anniversary of D-Day, let me add that it is not only in military casualty statistics that the media so often fails to provide a historical framework to make the numbers meaningful. They almost never do when it comes to economics.

As a case in point, in the 1992 election, one of the constantly reiterated Democratic talking points was that the United States was suffering through “the worst economic times since the Great Depression.” (Translation: George H. W. Bush is Herbert Hoover; elect the new FDR and all will be well.) I don’t remember any mainstream media seriously disputing what was utter historical nonsense. Unemployment in the recession of 1991-92 (in retrospect one of the mildest in American history) peaked in June, 1992, at 7.6 percent. Less than ten years before, in the far worse recession of 1981-82, unemployment peaked in December, 1982, at 10.8 percent, nearly half again as many people out of work.

Of course sixteen years ago, a conscientious reporter (please pardon what so often seems an oxymoron when it comes to historical context) would have had to go to the company reference library to look the data up. Now he can do it at his or her desk or even from the neighborhood bar. I’ll even save reporters the necessity of googling. To find the unemployment rate for every month since 1948, go here and here:

I’m always amazed at how many political reporters and editors seem to think that it is their duty to report what a politician says accurately but not to check on whether what he says is a bald-faced lie, especially when statistics are involved. They should. As one of the greatest politicians of the 19th-century English-speaking world, Benjamin Disraeli, noted, mendacity comes in three forms: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

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