St. Paul Pioneer Press Reporter Botches Food Inflation Report

Twin Cities news consumers aren't well served, and it may get worse.

Avista Capital Partners, which owns the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said earlier this month that its investment in the Strib is performing so poorly that it had to be written down by 75%. Earlier, the New York Post reported the possibility that the paper might go bankrupt. That possibility will loom as long as the Strib, which many locals refer to as "Red Star Tribune," largely serves as the apparent PR outlet of the Democratic Farm Labor Party (the Gopher State's Democrats).

If a Strib bankruptcy were to occur, and it ceases publication, the St. Paul Pioneer Press is less than ready to step into the breach, at least if Tom Webb's article Thursday about recent food price inflation is any indication.

Webb's opening:

What's up at the supermarket? Prices for almost everything

Food inflation hit an 18-year high in April, with grocery prices rising 1.5 percent for the month, the government said Wednesday. Prices rose in every aisle - dairy, breads, meats, beverages, fruits and vegetables. It means $53 more a month to feed a family of four with a typical food budget.

Jim Taranto at Best of the Web caught the obvious nonsense on Friday:

This would mean that before the 1.5% increase, the typical family of four spent $3,533 a month, or a hair under $42,400 a year, on food. No wonder America has an obesity epidemic!

I thought I would try to give the apparent best of the Pioneer Press's Webb the benefit of the doubt, and attempted to determine where he got his figure from.

Beats me.

I went to the USDA's web site, where it presents monthly updated costs for various levels of eating for food at home. I used the March 2008 costs at this link (PDF), and calculated the effect of a 1.5% increase using the (of course) "Liberal plan":

USDAfoodInflationEstimate0408

I can't for the life of me figure out where the $53 came from. Even the $911.10 in the "Moderate" column yields an answer of $13.67; if Webb erroneously double-counted and multiplied by 4, that's still a rounded $54, not $53. Perhaps a more "creative" reader can channel Mr. Webb's inner calculator.

Webb's figure got past the vaunted layers of fact-checking newspapers like the Pioneer Press allegedly have.

If Webb's numerical literacy is typical of newsrooms across America, that would go a long way towards explaining why the utter nonsense of last year's blatantly political and breathtakingly deceptive Food Stamp Challenges received very little scrutiny, and quite a bit of blind, fawning acceptance. Time after time, in city after city, those challenges repeated the patently false assertion that recipients have only $1 per person per meal with which to buy food, when the amounts involved are 28-70% higher, depending on family size (the benefit provided is about $1 per person per meal, because calculations based on family income and assets determine how much a family has and can afford to pay out of its own resources).

Based on the Strib's tribulations and the Pioneer Press's apparent inadequacies, the Twin Cities would seem to be fertile ground for an enterprising fair and balanced online hard-news publication.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.