The Mainstream Media is so often accused these days by President Trump and others (sometimes rightly) of propagating “fake news” that it seems only fair to point out an important example of such news organizations fighting fake news: a Washington Post article yesterday exposing the phoniness underlying key claims that the Trump administration’s tariff-heavy China policies either have nothing to do with the woes being experienced lately by America’s soybean farmers, or that they’ve already devastated cultivators of this key crop.
At first glance it seems odd that the fate of soybeans growers has moved to center stage in the China trade debate. It’s true that this crop has become America’s second-leading export to China, and that a huge share (25 percent) of the annual U.S. harvest has relied on the Chinese market. At the same time, it’s hard to think of a time since the Great Depression Dust Bowl when America’s leading journalists paid nearly this much attention to American farmers.
As the Post‘s Meg Kelly (unsurprisingly, in my view) noted, President Trump got it wrong when he responded to soybean-focused critiques of his China trade policies by contending that “Farmers have been on a downward trend for 15 years. The price of soybeans has fallen 50% since 5 years before the Election. A big reason is bad (terrible) Trade Deals with other countries.”
In all fairness, though, soybean prices did begin sinking dramatically in mid 2012 – more than four years before he was even elected President.
More noteworthy, given the rash of soybean stories and widespread fears of soy-mageddon, was Kelly’s debunking of a claim by North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp (also communicated by tweet) that “A study shows that corn, soybean and wheat farmers across the U.S. have already lost $13 billion because of the administration’s trade war. We need trade policies that make sense for North Dakota, protect farmers and ranchers, and open up markets.”
Thanks to Kelly, we now know that there was no such study – or even close. Let’s allow the author’s words show how flimsy this claim really was:
“When the [Post] asked to see the study, Heitkamp’s office pointed us to an op-ed from the National Farmers Union that was referenced in a New York Times article. But the National Farmers Union said the calculation was not its work. Instead, it said, it obtained the factoid from a quote in an article in the Wall Street Journal.”
Kelly further explains that the source of the quote was eminently respectable – an agricultural economist from Purdue University. But she also made painfully clear how shoddy his methodology was: His soybean crop loss estimates never distinguished between the impact of tariffs and the impact of weather. That’s like a sportswriter examining an athlete’s performance and never disclosing whether he or she plays for a good or a bad team.
But the importance of Kelly’s diligent reporting goes far beyond soybeans, or even trade. For Heitkamp-type sleights of hand take place in the American political and policy world’s all the time. Here’s another example, reported here about a year ago, about the popular meme that the beneficiaries of former President Obama’s “Dream Act” granting amnesty to many illegal immigrant children brought to this country by their parents were an unusually well educated group – and that therefore, revoking their amnesty would backfire on an economy that urgently needed highly knowledgeable workers.
Heitkamp, however, deserves some credit for taking down her misleading tweet. President Trump hasn’t – which is disappointing since, as made clear above, and is so often the case, he could have made a completely valid point by displaying just a moderately greater respect for accuracy.