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Boehner with GOP colleagues in July. Economist Alan Blinder ridiculed his assertions that the the stimulus was “job killing,” but the press, by and large, reports them uncritically. (AP)

The press nods as absurdity, lies prevail in the budget debate

COMMENTARY | August 18, 2011

Would more accurate news coverage prompt Tea Party and Republican leaders to pay more attention to facts in their assertions about the economy? Maybe yes, maybe no. But, suggests Henry Banta, if the coverage continues at its present dismal level, we’ll never find out.

By Henry Banta

Several times recently Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning professor at Princeton, has placed a large part of the blame for the appalling level of the budget debate on the media. (Here is one example.) The problem, he asserts, comes because there is no political cost to being outrageously wrong, irresponsible, stupid or even dishonest. In the eyes of the major media all opinion is equal. The content of political rhetoric does not matter. The truth or falsity of claims does not matter. All that matters is who is on what side. As a result we have had a crucial public debate in which perfectly absurd notions were reported as if they had serious merit. Rationality, civility, not to mention sanity have been major casualties.

This is a very serious accusation, one that responsible journalists should deal with. If it has merit, the profession needs some major self-examination. Granted that, in Professor Krugman’s view, the most outrageous rhetoric came from the Tea Party and its allies, but his accusation cannot be dismissed as mere partisanship. There is nothing new in the charge that the major media are indifferent to factual issues, but the budget debate has conspicuously raised to a new level the media’s inability or unwillingness to discuss factual issues.

Anyone who attempted to follow the debate beyond bumper sticker slogans has to have been struck by how much of it involved factual assertions that should have been scrutinized by responsible news organizations. This was not just a matter of differences in rhetoric or ideology, but conflicting factual claims that simply could not be reconciled. At a time when serious factual reporting was called for, all we got was “he-said, she-said” journalism. As a result the offending politicians, mostly Republicans, including Republican leaders, took no risk in making absurd factual claims. They were safe from being publicly called out. The debate spiraled to the gutter.

Granted that in economic disputes facts can get pretty slippery and data can get murky. We all know the hoary old cliche about “lies, damn lies and statistics.” But in the budget face-off we were long past any narrow technical questions. At issue were basic facts that should have been within ability of even most modestly talented reporters to question. Insight into facts is the most important responsibility of any journalist.

There was something disgusting about the TV networks rushing to report on the ordinary citizen’s anger and frustration with “dysfunctional Washington.” They repeatedly interviewed people who were hopelessly confused and misinformed, while utterly indifferent to their own contribution to the ignorance and confusion.

One might have thought that the networks that gave an obscene amount of coverage to the arcane legal issues in the trial of Casey Anthony would have made an attempt to explain concepts like “aggregate demand,” or “liquidity trap.”

The first failure of the media was their contribution to the notion that we had a budget crisis at all. What we had was a faction of Congress using the debt ceiling as a device to leverage their own economic priorities. The “crisis” was politically manufactured. Granted this got an occasional mention – but so infrequently as to be drowned out by sky-is-falling rhetoric. If the average citizen out on the street looking for a job missed it, he could hardly be blamed.

Second on the list of failures was the lack of any discussion of the causes of our debt problem.

All we got was endless repetition of the claim that the problem resulted from reckless, irresponsible spending by Congress. Day after day we were told that we had a  “spending crisis” resulting in “too many wasteful programs.” Whatever small grain of truth that was in this accusation was totally swamped by the fact that it was utterly misleading, and every reporter who repeated it should have said so.

By far the largest contribution to the rise of the deficit was the Great Recession. Unemployed workers and failing firms do not pay taxes; they become drains on public resources. It was not that spending went up but that revenue went down. Maybe one could count the Bush tax cuts and two unfunded wars as “wasteful programs,” but it is hard to blame them on a recklessly spending Congress. Further, what spending increases that could be attributed to the present Administration reflected a desperate effort to stop the blood flow from the financial crisis.

Few doubt that we have a looming debt problem caused by the increasing burden of our entitlements programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But this is the result of changing demographics, not reckless or irresponsible spending. A massive reduction of discretionary spending would do little to resolve this problem. 

The media’s refusal to discuss the causes of the deficit added immeasurably to the public’s frustration and confusion. It permitted, and implicitly gave credibility to, the insane claim that the deficit was the cause of the economic slump – not the other way around. Endlessly we heard that if we just slashed spending, it would restore confidence in the economy and return us to full employment. No one seemed to notice this was a claim that had no basis in experience and was rejected by virtually every economist that had not been drinking Kool-Aid over the last decade. 

As the clamor over the budget fades a bit, the media attention seems to be shifting to a very real crisis: unemployment. It is painfully clear that we are a long way from being out of the economic difficulty caused by the financial crisis. We are hearing two radically differing proposals as to what needs to be done. The Republicans insist that the only way out is to further cut the budget, reduce the deficit, eliminate the threat of tax increases and burdensome governmental regulation. On the other side are those who argue that we must first take care of the recession and the unemployment it has caused. Cutting government spending now will be counterproductive, only increasing both unemployment and the deficit. 

Each of these arguments involves important disagreements with the other over facts about how the economy works and, most importantly, about what we can learn from our recent experience. Any effort to assess their merits will require an honest inquiry into the evidence underlying the factual claims.

For example, as we face the possibility that unemployment could rise further, what happened as a result of the Administration's stimulus program becomes extremely important. Republicans, most notably Speaker Boehner, have vociferously asserted that it created no jobs, that indeed it was “job killing.” A claim that prompted Alan Blinder of Princeton to reply, “Really? With spending under the Recovery Act exceeding $600 billion (and tax cuts exceeding $200 billion), that would be quite a trick.” Responsible journalists can’t let the argument stop there.

Is it too much to suggest that the media look at other economies in terms other than their effect on our stock market? For example, might it be useful to look at the United Kingdom, which is somewhat ahead of the US in implementing the budget-cutting austerity policies so passionately advocated by the Republicans? Have they restored business confidence, increased investment, or reduced unemployment? Benefitted the less fortunate?

The issues we face in the coming months are far too serious to be given the same incompetent treatment that was given the budget debate. The public deserves better. The nation needs better.


Posted by Kathleen O'Neill
08/19/2011, 05:00 PM

Thank you for your insightful analysis. I completely agree. I think the mainstream media is as harmful to our discourse as Fox in many ways.

"In the eyes of the major media all opinion is equal"
Posted by thinkahol
08/19/2011, 07:56 PM

Not quite. But first, thank you for a great article. However in the eyes of the major media all opinion is definitely not equal. Anyone that disagrees with bipartisan consensus is completely ignored. Even when bipartisan consensus is what gets us the ever expanding national surveillance / imperialist state.

Posted by Taikan
08/19/2011, 09:13 PM

Your observation that the media failed to point out factual inaccuracies and outright falsehoods is a good one. It appears that most of the people who call themselves journalists these days don't bother to do the necessary homework to learn the facts. Or, if they do, they don't bother to report those facts.

However, I think some of the blame also has to be apportioned to the politicians themselves. Too often an outrageous claim regarding the nature, severity or cause(s) of the "debt problem" was not challenged by any other politician from either major party.

I also take issue with your statement that "it is hard to blame [the Bush tax cuts and two unfunded wars] on a recklessly spending Congress." That is exactly where the blame lies. Bush proposed the tax cuts, but Congress enacted them, and Congress refused to cancel them when the federal government started racking up record deficits. Similarly, Bush proposed the two unfunded wars, but Congress authorized them and Congress continued (and still continues) to fund them without raising sufficient revenues to pay for them. What was really newsworthy that wasn't adequately reported, however, was that many of the same Republican members of Congress responsible for creating the deficits by reducing revenues at the same time they increased expenditures during the 2001-2007 time period when they controlled both the House and the Senate were the ones branding the Democrats in Congress as reckless spenders.

Posted by MickSteers
08/19/2011, 10:49 PM

Your faith that journalism in the age of entertainment can grapple with subtle, complex and important information is touching. The idea that reporters, editors and talking heads have the either the resources or incentives to challenge vapid consensus views and wingnut falsehoods with evidence, suggests you have not been paying enough attention.

Since the media missed huge and fairly simple stories like wars of aggression, the financial melt-down, torture, and executive malfeasance in our premier institutions over the past 10 years, what gives you any confidence that they are up to the task of parsing complex social, political and economic narratives?

Our media culture doesn't reward such behavior with celebrity and wealth. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that unflinching truth-telling is downright frowned upon.

Failings of the media is good business practice
Posted by MSpiering
08/26/2011, 01:38 PM

I concur with the above comment. Today's media in the main have no interest or incentive to inform the public. The bottom line of their business is what drives most reporting. Stories that generate a lot of viewers or "hits" translate into increased revenue, and one might surmise that a story about "aggregate demand" or "liquidity trap" is not one that attracts a lot of interest and traffic and thus revenue.

To stem this erosion in popular media coverage, the role of money as a driver will need to be diminished. This will require a cultural shift away from daily lives constantly titillated by the consumption of media-generated gossip and sensation, towards pursuing lives that are less focused on ephemeral material possessions and relations but rather are enriched by personal interactions and experiences.

It's a tall order to be sure, but I really cannot see it happen any other way.

My experience
Posted by Ken in Tenn
08/28/2011, 10:18 PM

I spent well over a decade as a reporter before moving on to government service, then the private sector. I am involved in a business where I have to pay close attention to economics and read about it daily.

My experience is that most reporters understand economics about as well as they do the digestive process of a chicken. Unfortunately, the end result of reporters' efforts often resembles that of the chicken.

I get exasperated and scream at my TV, newspaper and internet web sites on a daily basis due to the shallow reporting of economic topics as some kind of a political horserace. It isn't. There are proveable facts out there, there are discernible truths, yet we do not see them reflected in our news coverage. If reporters were to call out the charlatans, liars and those pushing their own ideological agenda, we'd not only get better reporting but also a better economy.

Agree with Ken: Reporters woefully untrained, lacking courage
Posted by Charles
09/02/2011, 04:21 PM

There are problems with reporters' understanding of economics and finance, even at elite institutions. Gretchen Morgenson's reporting on the mortgage crisis was dissected by industry experts at the blog Calculated Risk. While I think Morgenson's reporting has improved, it did contain a number of basic errors. It's probably unfair to single her out, because her reporting was much better than most of what passes for economic/financial journalism. Still, reporters get paid to get it right. When they get it wrong, the nation suffers.

The lack of courage is a separate issue, and one that has to do more with management and advertisers. But I think that reporters need to understand that when they push an ideology, such as the view that deficits are caused by over-spending, they are acting as propagandists. A genuinely fair and balanced approach would focus on what spending is increasing and why, and what revenues are falling and why.

The US is, beyond debate, overspending. Our medical insurance system is a perfect example, and the USG (while more efficient than the private sector) is still wasteful. The same goes for military spending. We are also overspending for some things (like prisons) because we are underspending on other things (like jobs). And the revenue side likewise deserves discussion.

These are not complicated concepts. Politicians, notably President Obama, have been derelict in failing to teach the public. But ultimately the media, as the institution that decides what to transmit to the public, has to bear responsibility for the confusion.

a lost profession
Posted by Anders
09/09/2011, 10:40 PM

Journalism is extinct, now we have second string actors reading their lines, an trying to look the part.

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