A statistical assault on 'bad-news bias; Ben Wattenberg's 'super numbers' reveal a rosier world than the media report; The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong, by Ben J. Wattenberg. New York: Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $17.95.
This book will elicit cheers and grumbles from all points of the political compass. And a few hisses can be expected from at least one quarter - the press, which author Ben Wattenberg charges with missing some of the biggest stories of our time. Combining census and polling data with snappy, fast-paced writing, he sets out to show just how wrong our media-determined preconceptions can be.
Take immigration - a bona fide bad-news story if ever there was one, replete with endless footage of hapless border agents trying to corral a stampede of aliens, and knitted-brow commentary on the imminent unraveling of our social fabric. By now most of us would be surprised indeed to learn that there might be a rosier side to the situation on our borders.
Enter Ben Wattenberg, with a suggestion that we look at the broader picture. Applying what he calls the ''doctrine of super numbers'' - statistics so startling they force us to change the way we view our world - Mr. Wattenberg parades out the figures on life expectancy in the United States, which show a remarkable jump since 1970. Team those with the ''super numbers'' showing an equally noteworthy drop in the birthrate over the last couple of decades and you have the makings of a society in which more and more people draw on pension systems, as fewer and fewer pay into them. That, Wattenberg notes, could be ''social dynamite.'' An influx of relatively young, wage-earning immigrants could nicely fill this demographic void, he argues.
No whitewash intended, Wattenberg quickly adds. He recognizes that the question of illegality must be addressed and backs the now-stalled Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform bill.
How about the persistent issue of poverty in America? Again, Wattenberg doesn't try to argue that poverty is nonexistent in our privileged land or that recession hasn't pushed more Americans below the poverty line in recent years. His point is this: Look at the data over a number of decades, and you see a significant decline in the percentage of the population officially labeled poor, a decline that began even before Lyndon Johnson's storied ''war on poverty.'' Include such noncash government aid as food stamps, medicaid, and housing subsidies - something that wasn't done until a Census Bureau study released in 1982 - and you get a halving of poverty in one decade, 1969-79. That, says Wattenberg, is a stellar ''super number.''
Through 400-plus pages, the issues-turned-on-their-heads-by-statistics march by, each fitted into a brief chapter that progresses roughly like this: Here's the story as you've heard it reported, and here's the ''real'' story (most often a good-news story), backed up by census data and poll findings. There's the much-heralded ''crisis in American education'' story, countered, a la Wattenberg , by figures showing an explosion in the numbers of Americans seeking everything from high school diplomas to adult education to master's degrees. Overall, he contends, the country is more committed to education, and better educated, than it has ever been. And there's the somberly trumpeted ''crisis in values'' story. But far from drifting away from the traditional values of family, monogamous sexual mores, and religion, Americans stand nearly foursquare behind them, if the survey data assembled by Wattenberg speak the truth.
Similarly, the chapters on blacks and women go against the grain of much public perception. Here, as throughout the book, progress and optimism are Wattenberg's keynotes.
One inevitably pauses to wonder if Ben Wattenberg's motives in writing this book weren't substantially political. Although he has long ties to the Democratic Party and once wrote speeches for Lyndon Johnson, some would now place him among today's neoconservatives. He's a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank usually described as right of center. And most of the stories he statistically dissects and rewrites here have occupied lofty positions on the liberal agenda of the past decade or two. But he argues, persuasively by and large, that his findings should unsettle liberals and conservatives alike.
Which side will cheer Wattenberg's very positive conclusions about declining poverty, for instance? Are they an indication that less government help is needed, or proof that federal antipoverty programs work and ought to be continued? It's a matter of perspective. Certainly doomsaying right-wingers aren't likely to appreciate Wattenberg's glowing words about Americans' enduring adherence to traditional values.
Whatever one's political persuasion, there is plenty in this book to provoke some introspection. How are our perceptions of events shaped? And is it events, or the broader social and political happenings Wattenberg calls ''processes,'' that we most need to be aware of?
Such queries lead back to the book's dominant thesis: that a pervasive bad-news bias among journalists skews the way stories are chosen, then written or broadcast, and hence the way we view our world. It's a thesis that probes to the heart of journalistic endeavor and defies easy dismissal or agreement. Ben Wattenberg has deftly thrown it into the arena of public discourse. The ensuing clamor should bear close listening.