May 20

Do you remember the $16 muffin? It was big news in 2011, coming from an inspector general’s report on Justice Department overspending at conferences. There were front-page articles in newspapers, but the real heat came from conservative media, particularly Fox News, which blasted the government for spending so much for muffins. It turned out that there was no $16 muffin, though there may have been overpriced hotel breakfasts.

That story contained everything Fox wanted its viewers to believe about government employees fleecing taxpayers.

Now here’s another similar story from today you won’t be hearing about on Fox, or perhaps anywhere else. It appeared on page A11 of today’s Post:

Northrop Grumman improperly charged the U.S. government more than $100 million in “questionable” costs on a contract, according to a Defense Department inspector general’s report.

The report found that from October 2007 through March 2013, the major defense contractor “did not properly charge labor rates” for a counter-narcoterrorism contract, and that the Army agency in charge of the contract did not ensure that the people performing the work had the necessary qualifications. The agency also did not review invoices for millions of dollars of overtime, the report said.

The IG found $21.7 million in “potentially excessive payments” for overtime, including one employee who billed $176,900 for 1,208 hours in a 12-day period. That caught investigators’ attention, since the employee was billing for more than 100 hours a day.

$100 million could buy you an awful lot of muffins. Back when the muffin story broke, I wrote a post about it and did a Google News search, which produced 443 articles about the muffins in the prior 24 hours. How many stories do you think there have been in the last 24 hours about Northrop Grumman’s $100 million overcharge (I suppose we might even call it “fraud”) of the American taxpayer? A dozen? A hundred? Nope. Just one — the one in the Post. Nobody else seems to find it interesting.

So what does this tell us? First, conservatives have a media apparatus that they can use to force certain stories into mainstream awareness when they find those that tell a tale they want people to hear. It doesn’t always work — for instance, their efforts to get everyone to care about the New Black Panthers have not borne fruit — but it works often enough.

Second, if there’s a vivid detail, even one that turns out to be untrue (like the $16 muffin), then all journalists are much more likely to find it compelling and do stories about it. You’d think that the story of the guy who managed to bill for 100 hours of work per day would be pretty compelling. Guess not.

Third, people seem to get angrier about bad behavior from government employees than from contractors, even though contractors at a place like Northrup Grumman are government employees in all but name (according to Northrop’s 2013 annual report, $21.3 billion of its $24.7 billion in sales came from U.S. government contracts). I’d give folks like Fox some credit for that, since they’ve worked so hard to convince everyone that “government bureaucrats” are both slothful and sinister, working every day to crush Americans’ freedom when they aren’t taking 3-hour lunches.

And fourth, the actual magnitude of the waste of taxpayer money is all but irrelevant to whether this kind of story gains traction. You know about the muffins, but do you remember that in Iraq, the Defense Department lost — literally just lost, with no idea where it went — a staggering $6.6 billion in cash? We’re talking pallets full of $100 bills, sent over there to make it rain on the various factions whose support we were trying to buy. Just disappeared. That should have been an earth-shaking scandal, but few people ever heard about it.

Pretty much every Republican in town decries wasteful government spending. So will we be seeing them holding angry press conferences condemning Northrop Grumman? Will they demand a select committee to investigate this matter, perhaps some criminal indictments? How about other defense contract overruns? We could start with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in human history, which is already slated to cost 70 percent more than its lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, originally said it would, with costs going nowhere but up.

You won’t hear Republicans complain about that, because those examples of “waste, fraud, and abuse” don’t allow them to tell a story that serves their ideology, a story in which government is bad and government employees are contemptible parasites. If the parasites are hugely profitable private corporations, then the story just doesn’t make sense to them. So we can all just move on.