The reporters and editors who produce the New York Times seem pretty clearly to be word people, not numbers people. Of course, they often get the words wrong too. But their problems with numbers are hard to understand or excuse.
On April 20, the Times ran an article by Jennifer Steinhauer on the problems the City of Houston has experienced in coping with refugees from Hurricane Katrina. A principal theme of the article was that the federal government had failed to come through with needed or promised help:
Seven months after two powerful hurricanes blew through the Gulf Coast, elected officials, law enforcement agencies and many residents say Texas is nearing the end of its ability to play good neighbor without compensation.
That theme, of course, fit well with the Times’ “bash Bush” obsession. Today, however, the paper admitted in its corrections section that it had completely misrepresented the facts:
A front-page article on Thursday about strain on government services in Texas caused by hurricane evacuees misstated the number of evacuee children in Houston public schools and the amount of Federal aid the state has received. The most recent count, in late February, showed 5,475 students, not 30,000. The aid is $222 million, not $22 million.
As Junie B. Jones says: Boom! Do the math. The Times reported that the feds had contributed $733 per student. In fact, the feds have paid $40,548 per student. One can only surmise that the people who run the newspaper are beyond embarrassment. (OK, that’s not quite fair, since some of the federal money has gone for policemen and other costs imposed by the Katrina refugees. But still, you get the drift.)
Oh, that’s not quite all. Today’s paper included a second correction for another article, published the day after the Houston piece:
An article yesterday about criticism of the Small Business Administration’s response to the 2005 hurricanes misstated the value of loans the agency has provided to victims. It is $842 million, not $336 million.
Well, that article wasn’t so bad. It was only off by a factor of 2.5. By the Times’ standards, that’s pretty good. What a funny coincidence, though. Why is it that the Times’ math is always wrong in the same direction?