Those who pay attention know that journalistic math is usually an oxymoron; only police estimates of drug "street value" top news reports of crowd size


The sky is falling! Again!

Those who pay attention know that journalistic math is usually an oxymoron; only police estimates of drug "street value" top news reports of crowd size for hype. And so when the equities markets burped on August 4, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 299 points, most papers simply reported it as the "third-biggest drop" ever for the Dow, which is nominally accurate but misleading. National Public Radio's Morning Edition called it "the third-worst day in the market's history," which is baldly wrong.

Such events are matters of scale, not degree. It's nearly meaningless to compare net point drops in today's 8,000-point Dow (or any likewise-inflated index) with those in yesteryear's 800- or 1,800-point index. Percentages are more pertinent—and Tuesday's 3.4 percent fall was hardly a whopper. On October 19, 1987, the Dow plunged a record 22.6 percent; on October 13, 1989, it fell 6.9 percent; on October 29, 1929, Black Monday, 12.8 percent; and on October 27, 1997, 7.7 percent. (Yep, there's something about October—and it's just two months away.) Even the 1997 drop, which was more than twice last Tuesday's, was only the 12th-worst) in Dow history—in real, percentage terms.

Why the hype? The usual motives—laziness, the thirst for drama—surely play in. But so may another creeping journalistic vice...

No sense of proportion

This weakness shows constantly in the charts and graphs that flash across every day's business pages, local and national. These show stock values and averages rising (and, less often, falling) dizzily, from near-zero to exponential heights. But the actual trends are much less dramatic, because rather than starting from a zero baseline, the charts set their starting point (say, the 7,900-point Dow at the year's start) at the baseline. They're most deceptive when two are drawn beside each other (like The Seattle Times' July 28 pair showing Dow and Boeing-stock movements) on entirely incommensurate scales. Graph-makers used to insert zigzag breaks to indicate they'd tampered with the scale; now they don't even bother. The presumption seems to be caveat observator: We should know by now the charts are skewed and don't really show anything. But then they're just wallpaper, there to make dull business pages look snazzy.

Another "original" out of beer

Memory's another rare journalistic quality. Last week the P-I reported that Redhook Ale would sell the brewhouse at "its original Fremont facility"—no surprise with craft-beer sales sagging and Redhook adding bigger breweries in Woodinville and New Hampshire. But the Fremont brewery was hardly the "original." Redhook started, to grand fanfare, in an old Ballard transmission shop in 1982. Ballard pride was key to its identity; each bottle was blazoned, "Ya sure you betcha." Then, in 1988, that original brewery closed and Ballard Bitter moved to Fremont. (Hale's Ales, the beer that made Colville famous, later moved to a nearby Ballard site.)

Even now Redhook president Paul Shipman vows not to abandon the picturesque old brick trolley barn that was his Fremont brewery: "We'll expand the retail here and use it for events and special occasions." (It is a great party space.) And it ought to be safe from the sort of "officication" that's overtaking Fremont (see Roger Downey's story on p.16); Shipman got it listed as a landmark.

More "Best of Seattle" categories one thought to ask about Best four-footed employee: Karl Kotas nominates "Nevada the Spanky Cat" at the Twice Sold Tales bookshop off Broadway, "who loves to be spanked." (Draw your own conclusions.) Best pork barrel: John Del Vento, a tilter against the Third Runway, nominates "the Pork [er, Port] of Seattle," and says that's what he thought the porker on the cover two weeks ago was supposed to represent.

Licenses to fill

The latest round in the wetland-protection wars is playing out, and once again it's a murky, mucky business. At issue once again are federal "nationwide permits" (NWPs) that allow filling and dredging without the environmental review required for "individual permits." Despite what politicos keep saying about "no net loss of wetlands," these are blank checks for filling and dredging smaller wetlands and water bodies of supposed "minimal" significance.

Trouble is, most wetlands and the projects proposed on them are small, and the cumulative effect of many small fills is very significant. The Environmental Protection Agency's Northwest regional office recently concluded that just one of many proposed nationwide permits, an exemption for farms called NWP 40, could allow the filling of nearly 35,000 acres in Washington alone. The EPA urges that alternative approaches to wetland regulation be explored, rather than hastily adopting the NWPs. But the job is assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, formerly the Dredge and Fill Corps, which is slowly evolving from a ravager to a steward of wild waterways and wetlands.

The nationwide permit that most alarms bog huggers is NWP 26, a catchall license for many types of development. The Clinton administration won cheers from unwary greens when it announced it would eliminate NWP 26. Then it announced six new permit categories to replace 26, covering everything from drainage ditches to master-planned developments. The corps promises in the Federal Register that "in most cases, projects that now qualify for NWP 26 will continue to qualify" for one of the new permits.

The Army Corps' Seattle District proposes to eschew one of those six, an NWP to permit "mining activities" in wetlands. For good reason: It would make it easier to dredge gravel from rivers, a major threat to listed salmon runs. But why should other regions that also have threatened fish runs allow this?

The corps' Seattle District has set lower acreage limits on NWPs than other districts. Even so, the US Fish & Wildlife Service found that since 1992, the corps in Seattle has used its discretionary authority to override such permits on only seven of the 20 occasions when the Wildlife Service urged it to. Whoops, there goes another pond.

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