November 19, 2013

The New York Post knows from headlines, and this one is explosive: “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.”

Astounding. In the heat of the 2012 presidential election, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced that the country’s unemployment rate had dropped from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent in September. Upon release of those numbers, national business icon Jack Welch tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.” Media critics and other commentators, this one included, piled on Welch, lecturing him on how inconceivable such a scenario was.

Now comes the New York Post’s John Crudele, with this stuff:

Just two years before the presidential election, the Census Bureau had caught an employee fabricating data that went into the unemployment report, which is one of the most closely watched measures of the economy.
And a knowledgeable source says the deception went beyond that one employee — that it escalated at the time President Obama was seeking reelection in 2012 and continues today.

Crudele’s story cites documents supporting his contention about data manipulation, not to mention a person: “The Census employee caught faking the results is Julius Buckmon, according to confidential Census documents obtained by The Post. Buckmon told me in an interview this past weekend that he was told to make up information by higher-ups at Census.” Buckmon told Crudele that he’d fabricated survey results for people whom he couldn’t reach as he went about assisting with the gathering of data for the unemployment report. Census does the survey legwork for the monthly BLS reports.

According to the New York Post, two of the six Census reporting regions — New York and Philadelphia — were coming up short in meeting requirements for data integrity. “Philadelphia filled the gap with fake interviews,” writes Crudele.

Big deal, all of it. A Labor Department spokesperson sent the Erik Wemple Blog this statement on next steps: “We have contacted the Census Bureau about the allegations in this news report. We expect that they and the Commerce Department will investigate.”

In the meantime, some questions:

1) Where’s the sourcing?. Crudele is alleging an ongoing case of malfeasance/corruption/wrongdoing at the Census Bureau. What’s more, he claims that this activity “escalated at the time President Obama was seeking reelection.” Such a finding would surely rehabilitate Jack Welch, but what’s it based on? A “knowledgeable source.”

2) Where’s the background? Crudele writes, “By making up survey results — and, essentially, creating people out of thin air and giving them jobs — Buckmon’s actions could have lowered the jobless rate.” OK, but did they actually lower the jobless rate? Another sentence in the article suggests that perhaps it didn’t: Buckmon “was never told how to answer the questions about whether these nonexistent people were employed or not, looking for work, or have given up.”

3) Where’s the official response? Crudele says that last week he’d “offered” to surrender all his information to the Labor Department’s inspector general but has yet to hear back. He also quotes a Labor Department spokesperson as saying, “Yes, absolutely they should have told us. It would be normal procedure to notify us if there is a problem with data collection.”

Carl Fillichio, Labor’s senior advisor for communications and public affairs, says that the official who issued that quote to Crudele works for BLS. Any allegation of interference with the unemployment numbers — whether politically motivated or not — should have been directed to the Labor Department’s main press shop, says Fillichio. The New York Post didn’t do so, he says.

4) What’s the deal with the IG? Whistleblowers report stuff to the IG. Activists report stuff to the IG. Citizens report stuff to the IG. Contractors report stuff to the IG.

Reporters . . . don’t report stuff to the IG. They publish the results of their findings and report them to the public.

5) Context? Crudele finds a person who claims to have been directed to fake interviews for unemployment reports. That’s a significant bit of reporting. But how much impact could one person have upon the statistics? How many Census foot soldiers are deployed in conducting interviews for the unemployment report?

Speaking of context, Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal points to a graph showing that the Sept. 2012 decline in the unemployment rate aligns with the longer-term trend.

At least Jack Welch’s wife has found comfort in the Crudele piece:

The Census Bureau has issued this statement on the New York Post story:

The Census Bureau takes allegations of fraud by its employees very seriously. Fabrication of data by an employee is grounds for disciplinary action, including dismissal and possible criminal action.

We have no reason to believe that there was a systematic manipulation of the data described in media reports. As a statistical agency, the Census Bureau is very conscientious about our responsibility to produce accurate Current Population Survey data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics and all other surveys we conduct. We carefully cross check and verify the work of our staff to ensure the data’s validity, including random quality control monitoring. That monitoring process includes reinterviewing respondents, and rechecking the data an employee has submitted, looking for red flags that indicate possible fabrication, such as abnormally short lengths of interviews or higher survey completion rates that are out of sync with normal survey collection productivity levels.

That is why when we learned of the allegations of fabricated Current Population survey results, we immediately reported them to the Office of the Inspector General.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.