The media myth about the cost of Obama's inauguration

Did you hear that “some are saying” Barack Obama's inauguration will cost "$160 million," which is $100 million more than George W. Bush's last swearing-in? That's the tale the crew at Fox & Friends was telling on January 15. “Why does the thing have to cost so much?” demanded co-host Gretchen Carlson. “I don't get it. George Bush spent $42.3 million and that was just four years ago.” She wondered why Obama needed “another $100 million” for his celebration.

Did you hear that “some are saying” Barack Obama's inauguration will cost "$160 million," which is $100 million more than George W. Bush's last swearing-in? That's the tale the crew at Fox & Friends was telling on January 15. “Why does the thing have to cost so much?” demanded co-host Gretchen Carlson. “I don't get it. George Bush spent $42.3 million and that was just four years ago.” She wondered why Obama needed “another $100 million” for his celebration.

The Fox News crew wasn't alone. The Internet and cable news were filled with chatter about the jaw-dropping (and unsubstantiated) number suddenly attached to Obama's swearing-in. But the sloppy reporting and online gossip about the price tag illustrated what happens when journalists don't do their job and online partisans take advantage of that kind of work.

It also highlighted the type of news you can generate when making blatantly false comparisons. In this case, it was the cost of the Obama and Bush inaugurations. The connection was unfair because the Obama figure of $160 million that got repeated in the press included security costs associated with the massive event. But the Bush tab of $42 million left out those enormous costs. Talk about stacking the deck.

The misinformation first arrived in the form of an underreported newspaper article in America, and then one in London. Between them, and thanks to furious transatlantic online linking, the reports gave birth to the story that Obama's inauguration was going to cost nearly four times what the country spent on Bush's bash in 2005 -- that the Obama inauguration would cost almost $120 million more.

With its declarative headline, “Obama's inauguration is most expensive ever at $160 million,” the New York Daily News reported:

It will take Barack Obama less than a minute to recite the oath of office -- and when he's done dancing at the inaugural balls Jan. 20, the price tag for his swearing-in festivities could approach $160 million.

Obama's inaugural committee is in the midst of raising roughly $45 million in private funds, exceeding the $42.3 million President Bush spent in 2005. In 1993, Clinton spent $33 million when Democrats returned to the White House for the first time in 12 years.

Talk about red flags: “could approach”? See the extraordinary freedom that kind of loose language allows? Of course, technically speaking, it's true the inauguration spending “could approach” $160 million. It also “could approach” $400 million or $900 million. There's literally no limit to the number that could be inserted into the phrasing, especially when the Daily News provided so little basis for the jumbo figure.

The closest the Daily News came to explaining the $160 million was its noting that the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland had submitted a $75 million request to the federal government to cover inauguration costs, including security and transportation. Bottom line: The Daily News provided no facts -- no evidence -- to support its what-if $160 million price tag for the inauguration, a price tag the newspaper declared as fact in its attention-grabbing headline.

The next day, a January 14 article in the London tabloid, the Daily Mail, also used an inflated figure, but offered zero reporting to back it up. (The Daily Mail piece created a big stir when the Drudge Report linked to it.)

The Daily Mail lead: “Barack Obama's inauguration is set to cost more than £100m [$155 million] making it the most expensive swearing-in ceremony in US history.”

The story continued:

The President-elect will take less than a minute to recite the oath of office in front of an estimated two million people in the US capital next week.

But by the time the final dance has been held at one of the many inaugural balls the costs for the day will be a staggering £110m [roughly $162 million].

The cost was revealed as Mr Obama scrambled to answer questions about the nomination of Treasury Secretary pick Timothy Geithner.

“Was revealed”? Who revealed the $162 million figure? The Daily Mail never said. And much like the Daily News, the figures mentioned in the Daily Mail simply did not add up to the final cost the newspaper hyped.

Unfortunately, that didn't matter. At least not to conservative partisans who grabbed onto the Daily Mail story (via Drudge) and announced a blatant hypocrisy existed within the press because, they claimed, four years earlier, reporters and liberal pundits raised questions about the cost of Bush's inauguration, but suddenly were mum about Obama's, even though at $160 million, it was going to cost nearly four times as much as Bush's bash. (Actually, it wasn't just liberals or the press raising questions about the Bush inauguration; a strong majority of Americans wished Bush, during a time of war, had scaled back the glitz for his second swearing-in.)

Online, the inauguration condemnations were swift and fierce. The cost of “Obama's upcoming celebration” was “dwarfing” any previous swearing-in expenses and was climbing into “the $100 millions,” claimed right-wing weblog The Jawa Report, which relied on the Daily Mail for its misinformation.

The unsubstantiated $160 million figure was also picked up and repeated on MSNBC, where news anchors spent all of January 14 announcing Obama's inauguration was going to cost "$160 million." The eye-popping dollar figure was accepted as fact, even though nobody in the press could actually explain where that number had come from. Plus, MSNBC suggested the $160 million tab just covered parties and activities, not the larger security costs.

video: msnbc-20090114-160mil

Here's why using the $160 million number and comparing it with Bush's 2005 costs represented a classic apples-and-oranges assessment: For years, the press routinely referred to the cost of presidential inaugurations by calculating how much money was spent on the swearing-in and the social activities surrounding that. The cost of the inauguration's security was virtually never factored into the final tab, as reported by the press. For instance, here's The Washington Post from January 20, 2005, addressing the Bush bash:

The $40 million does not include the cost of a web of security, including everything from 7,000 troops to volunteer police officers from far away, to some of the most sophisticated detection and protection equipment.

For decades, that represented the norm in terms of calculating inauguration costs: Federal dollars spent on security were not part of the commonly referred-to cost. (The cost of Obama's inauguration, minus the security costs? Approximately $45 million.) What's happening this year: The cost of the Obama inauguration and the cost of the security are being combined by some in order to come up with the much larger tab. Then, that number is being compared with the cost of the Bush inauguration in 2005, minus the money spent on security.

In other words, it's the unsubstantiated Obama cost of $160 million (inauguration + security) compared with the Bush cost of 42 million (inauguration, excluding security). Those are two completely different calculations being compared side-by-side, by Fox & Friends, among others, to support the phony claim that Obama's inauguration is $100 million more expensive than Bush's.

That's why the right-wing site confidently reported that Obama's swearing-in would cost “nearly four times what George Bush's inauguration cost four years ago.” So did Flopping Aces, a shining light of the right-wing blogosphere:

President Barack Obama's inauguration next week is set to be the most expensive ever, predicted to reach over $150m. This dwarfs the $42.3m spent on George Bush's inauguration in 2005 and the $33m spent on Bill Clinton's in 1993.

If portions of the press and the blogosphere want to now suggest that the cost of security should also be factored into the final tab for presidential inaugurations, they need to go back and recalculate the cost for Bush's 2005 swearing-in in order to have an honest comparison. Because with security included, the 2005 inauguration cost a lot more than $42 million -- just as with security factored in, Obama's will also cost a lot more than $45 million. (The final tab, though, likely won't be known for months.)

The question for the press then becomes: How much did the government spend on security for Bush's 2005 inauguration? How much did it cost for the wartime administration's unprecedented move to turn the nation's capital into something akin to an armed fortress, with snipers on rooftops, planes flying overhead, Humvee-mounted anti-aircraft missiles dotting the city, and manholes cemented shut?

Back in January 2005, that figure was impossible to come by. “U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said last week that he was unable to estimate security costs for the inauguration,” The Washington Times reported. The cross-town Washington Post also had no luck in 2005 finding out the cost of security: "[Government] spokesmen said they could not provide an estimate of what the inauguration will cost the federal government."

However, buried in a recent New York Times article published one week before the controversy erupted over the cost of Obama's inauguration, the newspaper reported that in 2005, “the federal government and the District of Columbia spent a combined $115.5 million, most of it for security, the swearing-in ceremony, cleanup and for a holiday for federal workers” [emphasis added].

You read that correctly. The federal government spent $115 million dollars for the 2005 inauguration. Keep in mind, that $115 million price tag was separate from the money Bush backers bundled to put on the inauguration festivities. For that, they raised $42 million. So the bottom line for Bush's 2005 inauguration, including the cost of security? That's right, $157 million.

Unless the Obama inauguration tab (including security) ends up costing $630 million, we can safely say it certainly won't cost four times what the Bush bash did in 2005. And unless the Obama inauguration tab (including security) runs to $257 million, we can safely say the event won't cost $100 million more than Bush's, as Fox & Friends claimed.

So, for now, can the press and partisans please stop peddling this malignant myth?