It's as American as apple pie, as traditional as turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce -- the Times's annual pre-Thanksgiving holiday travel story.
Yes, that's right: Millions of Times readers will gather around the fireplace this morning for their ritual reading of AAA statistics, dire warnings from travel agents and predictions about endless flight delays.
It's always a comforting experience, because readers can count on the same sentences, thoughts and facts every year. Consider the familiar, lilting rhythms of the second paragraph of this morning's version, as written (this year) by Michelle Higgins:
Holidays are the busiest time of year for most travel companies, a season when they command the highest rates for popular winter destinations.
Ah, yes...we remember it well.
But wait! Did Higgins dare to write this year's version without consulting last year's classic, by Maria Newman and Anahad O'Connor? (Surely you haven't forgotten that one, when the reporters helpfully informed us: "...travel experts are advising people to set off early to avoid delays.")
Had Higgins bothered to check her facts against those of last year's story, she would have discovered that AAA fed her phony statistics to go along with this year's estimates of those planning to drive to their destinations -- a figure designed to support Higgins's contention that the economic crisis was affecting travel plans.
In the third paragraph of today's story, Higgins reports:
But as the economy’s decline has accelerated, nervous consumers have started to shut their wallets and put off vacation plans. For the first time in six years, Thanksgiving travel is expected to decline, according to AAA, the automotive group, with about 41 million Americans taking trips of 50 miles or more from home, a dip of 1.4 percent from last year.
But that doesn't quite dovetail with last year, when Newman and O'Connor reported:
Some 38 million people are expected to travel at least 50 miles from home today as they make their way to the holiday feast, according to AAA, the automobile club, which keeps tabs on teavel habits nationwide year round."
We're no math whizzes, but that doesn't sound much like a 1.4% decline. That looks more like a 12% increase. Which contradicts Higgins's point.
But maybe it's unfair to blame Higgins for not questioning the AAA statistic. Really, if a reporter can't believe AAA's annual pre-Thanksgiving traffic estimates, then what's left to believe in?