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How the New York Times got the Chisago County entitlements story

Tea (Party) and hypocrisy? The Times makes the county an exemplar the middle class’s increasing share of government entitlements.

New York Times reporter Binyamin Appelbaum

At least among the local chattering class, the New York Times’ big Sunday front-pager on Chisago County – “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It” – got attention. To more than a few liberals, the story showcased hypocrisy in Cravaack Country –government haters increasingly leeching off the entity they vote repeatedly to cut. To some, the provocative frame highlighted the local media’s timidity.

How the Times came to land in Minnesota begins with an under-reported dataset.

Robert Gebeloff, the Times’ database projects editor, had been assigned to unearth new sources for demographics stories. “Most of the time, coverage is based on data put out by the Census Bureau,” Gebeloff says. “We came upon the Bureau of Economic Analysis.”

Journalists typically rely on BEA numbers for national stories like Gross Domestic Product changes. However, Gebeloff says the agency has a cache of local data reporters almost never use.

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Unlike the Census Bureau, which reports earned income, “The BEA adds to that all this entitlement money,” he explains. “That led us to the relationships between different kinds of income. Sure enough, it popped out pretty clearly that the biggest increase in the components of income was the value of entitlements.”

Beating out Texas and Arizona

Using the BEA’s interactive database, raw files, and Microsoft Access, Gebeloff produced “lists and lists of counties.” He eliminated perennially poor places, like Appalachia, and places with major events, like a big plant closure.

“The usual way journalists do a story like this is what I call the ‘mostest’ place – where has it changed the most, or the biggest share,” Gebeloff explains. “We finally hit upon this idea of not finding a ‘mostest,’ but a typical example.”

The Times piece was nearly datelined suburban Arizona, or Austin, Texas. Chisago “won” because its share of income from government and other baseline numbers most closely met national averages.

Adds Gebeloff, “Chisago was interesting because it was an outer-ring suburb, which is kind of typically American for the last 20 years, it had for the most part been economically healthy for a long while, and actually had a very low level of dependency on government benefits. But it had changed a lot, with no simple explanation except this is changing the way America is changing.”

Gebeloff – who says he eventually built an internal MySQL database for Times collaborators  – worked only on Chisago and one other project since the project kicked into high gear in October. When original reporter David Leonhardt was promoted to D.C. bureau chief, he assigned Binyamin Appelbaum, whose early reporting on the mortgage crisis made him a 2008 Pulitzer finalist.

‘Here come the Times to say people are hypocrites’

Appelbaum  – who estimates he spent month’s time on the story – visited Chisago for a week in November.

“I came in without leads of any kind – the only thing I’d booked in advance was the hotel,” he says. “I’d done this story most often in the Sun Belt, so I was counting on finding more people outside, and the daylight didn’t last as long. That was a miscalculation on my part!”

He stopped in convenience stores, restaurants and small businesses, and by week’s end (with a videographer in tow) pastors were helping him find parishioners and an American Legion post manager tipped him to bar hours that were patron-rich.

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Yes, some in Cravaack country walked the other way when approached by a Timesman. “That’s something you get used to, working here,” Appelbaum allows. “But really, a strikingly small share of people I approached fell into that category. I was really impressed by how willing and ready people were to talk, and how top-of-mind this was as an issue.”

Appelbaum insists the point of the story was not hypocrisy. “Absolutely not. I think that’s a very common sort of first-blush reaction – ‘Oh, here comes the Times to say people are hypocrites.’

“The point of the story was to hold up a mirror to the middle class. Some people look down and see the poor as the source of the nation’s problems; some people look up and see the rich. The reality is, part of the nation’s problem is the middle class.”

One of the Times’ most compelling charts – showing the entitlement share for the bottom fifth plunging from 54 percent to 40 percent in a quarter-century as the top three-fifths rose – underscores that point.

Gebeloff acknowledges, “We wanted to incorporate how places are voting; how prominent that is in the story, I’ll leave up to readers. But the point of the story is, modern entitlement spending isn’t just about dumping money into cities, it’s about everybody.

“If you’re conservative, it proves the point we’re spending too much money and we need to reform the spending.”

The conservative toe-hold

Indeed, an unmistakable takeaway is that entitlement spending – especially Medicare – is at near-runaway levels higher taxation seems unlikely to cover. At the right-blog Power Line, Steven Hayward makes exactly this point.

However, the “hypocrisy” read isn’t off-base. The headline – “Even Critics of Safety Net” – practically begs it, even if some interviewees pledged to give up at least a portion of their benefits.

Try to imagine the mirror image: “Even Supporters of Safety Net Decreasingly Depend On It.” Might be true of rich guys like Warren Buffet, but there are no internal contradictions there. 

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Chisago may not have been a “mostest” sort of place, but emphasizing conservatives was a “mostest” sort of angle.

Still, insists Appelbaum, “The point of this story was to go to a middle-class place and say to the people there, set aside whatever you think of the rich, whatever you think of the poor, what do you think about you? Your relationship with the government? Do you want to pay more? Do you want to get less?

“It was a process for people. I think all of our first responses tend to be, I would like the government to fix the problems it has in other places. If I had infinite space, more of this story would be devoted to the amount of that that I heard, because that’s kind of missing from these transcripts of these portraits. Everyone really does begin there, by saying, ‘The problem is other people.’ Let’s stipulate that’s true – what about you? Do you accept there are problems with your relationship with the government, and what do you want to do about that? That’s what the story is all about.”

Even the New Yorker’s George Packer – who noted the “weird exactness” of entitlement hot zones to conservative places – came away sympathetic to interviewees like Ki Gulbranson, who “resents [government] most of all because he knows he needs it.”

The local reaction – and Cravaack non-reaction

Appelbaum has heard “in passing” from a couple of Chisago interviewees, without blowback. Before the story ran, he read each interviewee their quotes and talked them about how they could be characterized. “I wanted to provide picture of them that was fair, that they would recognize,” Appelbaum says.

Brian Qualley, the conservative tattoo parlor operator quoted in the piece, says Appelbaum’s representation of his entitlement views was “pretty darn close.”

The tattooist says the story’s paraphrase that some customers “paid with money from government disability checks” was wrong. “I never had anyone do that,” Qualley states. “I said I’ve heard of people who have done it. I was thinking of that Channel 5 report about people paying for tattoos with EBT cards.”

That KSTP report showed a tattooist encouraging EBT fraud. However, beneficiaries can use the cash portion of their benefits for anything, though the station did not provide an example. MPR later criticized other elements of the story.

For his part, Appelbaum stands by the item, saying Qualley offered the information in two separate interviews, on tape.

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Politically, one of the story’s more interesting aspects was “Searching for Chip,” the repeated refusal of the area’s Republican Congressman, Chip Cravaack, to comment on the critic/dependent dynamic.

“I tried a lot,” Appelbaum says. “I had, early on in this process, a couple of long conversations with his office about what we were doing, and why we hoped to speak with him. They promised to get back to us and never did. I followed up several times, as recently as the Friday before the story ran, and they clearly made a decision not to participate.”

Cravaack’s office did not return a MinnPost call for comment.