How To Invent A Misleading Statistic

Tuesday, 03 September 2013 10:37 By Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters | Report
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The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold hyped the size of the federal government out of context, presenting an excellent example of how to construct a misleading statistic.

Writing on the size of the federal workforce, Fahrenhold claims:

Measured another way -- not in dollars, but in people -- the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That's more than the populations of 24 states.

Wow, 24 states. That's almost half the country. Clearly the federal behemoth has grown too big.

Other ways he could have phrased this statement include:

That's less than the population of the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area. 


That's less than half the audience that viewed America's Got Talent last week.

Or more accurately:

That's approximately 1.3 percent of the total U.S. population, handling all government business, including delivering our mail, serving in the military, inspecting our food, fighting terrorism, etc.

Farhenthold's statistic was clearly designed to imply to readers that the federal workforce had grown too large and therefore more spending cuts were necessary. Even more misleading than his statistic was his failure to mention that further cuts could actually harm the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, "the United States had proved too aggressive in carrying out budget cuts, given its still-sluggish rates of growth and high unemployment levels."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

Ari Rabin-Havt

Ari Rabin-Havt hosts The Agenda, a national morning radio program airing on SiriusXM 127. He is also a senior fellow at Media Matters and was on the faculty of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. He is co-author of "The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network into a Propaganda Machine" and has served as an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

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