Thursday, November 04, 2010

How the press let us get in the mess we’re in

Barack Obama’s failure to focus on the economy is being rightfully blamed for the resounding repudiation he suffered in the mid-term elections, but the national press deserves a whack upside the head for helping to let it happen.

The looming battle over national policy in the new Congress matters to everyone, regardless of political persuasion. Unless and until Washington gets its act together, the economy almost surely will continue to founder, spreading hardship and anger across the land. And that will make the United States an unpleasant place to live and do business.

Although a vigilant press is supposed to help alert society to such dangers before they advance as far as they have gotten today, the dominant media failed miserably in the last two years to rivet proper attention on a historic economic cataclysm that has sapped the wealth and confidence of millions of Americans.

Why did the press do so little so late? Here is a stab at the answer:

Captivated by the prospect of a new kind of president after eight years of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, unaccomplished military missions and an economy artificially levitated by phony home loans, the mainstream media behaved more like lapdogs than watchdogs when Obama entered the White House.

In the thrall of the brainy and self-assured Obama, the press largely failed to ask the hard-edged questions that could have sharpened the president’s understanding of the terrifyingly deteriorating economy; sharpened his agenda by emphasizing jobs, jobs and more jobs, and sharpened his elbows for combat with the tough political customers whose singular – and brilliantly fulfilled – agenda was to make the president look like he was out of touch with the growing pain on Main Street.

Instead, it was largely business as usual for the media, as journalists busied themselves immediately after the 2008 election with such inside-baseball matters as picking the winners and losers in the new Obama power structure. Once the president took office, the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.

Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

The failure of the press to grasp the rising primal fear in the land is at once bitterly ironic and manifestly inexplicable, given that most news organizations were suffering through the same wrenching recalibration that has resulted in nearly double-digit national unemployment – and an under-employment rate that some analysts believe afflicts more than a fifth of the population.

How did the press miss the visceral significance of the economic meltdown, which in all likelihood will be the biggest – and furthest reaching – story of our generation? Here are three thoughts:

1. The members of the national press, who largely are domiciled in Washington and New York, failed to grasp the fear and loathing on Main Street because they were so comfortable in their six- and seven-figure sinecures that the economic catastrophe was nothing more to them than a series of abstract government statistics and occasional, disembodied sound bites. They were so far removed from reality that they couldn’t feel – much less adequately express – the nation’s mounting pain.

2. Living in nearly as much of a bubble as the president, the national media confined their reporting to a narrowly constrained group of current or wannabe government officials. Even on a broadcast as high in caliber as the PBS Nightly News, 82% of the news sources are white, 67% are men and 44% are current or former government officials, according to a recent survey by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a non-partisan and non-profit media watchdog. When fat and happy people interview other fat and happy people, they get the idea that everyone is fat and happy.

3. In sunnier times for the newspaper business, ambitious reporters sent to the capital from the provincial press occasionally pierced the bubble surrounding the Beltway by covering topics that weren’t on the official agenda. But those days have disappeared just as surely as the reporters themselves. As of early 2009, newspapers in only 23 states had full-time correspondents assigned to the nation’s capital, according to a sobering report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Things almost surely have not gotten better since then.

If the above theories begin to explain the failure of the national media, what happened to the work-a-day journalists toiling across the land? Like it or not, they had a front-row view of the growing number of shuttered factories, bankrupt stores, empty car lots and hastily abandoned housing developments. Were they too busy or too shell-shocked to give ample insight into the carnage before them? Or were we just not listening?

As the undoing of the Obama administration unfolded over the last two years, the smartest journalist in the room proved to be a man who is not an official journalist at all. Rather, it was Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who writes an op-ed column for the New York Times.

Three days after Obama was elected, Krugman said in a column on Nov. 10, 2008: “My advice to the Obama people is to figure out how much help they think the economy needs, then add 50%. It’s much better, in a depressed economy, to err on the side of too much stimulus than on the side of too little.”

Unfortunately for Obama and the rest of us, the president failed to heed Krugman’s advice. Now, it won’t be easy to turn things around.

The virulent anti-Washington, anti-deficit and anti-tax sentiment that suffuse the political atmosphere almost certainly guarantee that politicians on both sides of the aisle will be far too worried about saving their skins in 2012 than to vote in favor of the stimulus prescribed 24 months ago by the wise Dr. Krugman.

Now that this election has hardened positions and put progressive forces on the defensive, it is going to take a sea change to return civility and reason to the national political discourse. Unless a miracle occurs to make that possible, we may be embarked on a long, grinding and demoralizing epoch of malaise.

The press is not entirely to blame for all this. But its dereliction sure contributed to the mess we are in.

18 Comments:

Blogger Terry Maguire said...

Alan, I believe you are right. In addition, with all due respect to many fine reporters, I think that many journalists have simply lost the commitment to be creatively comprehensive in their reporting. They look for hot snippets of news that can be debated endlessly without getting into hard-worked details. Instead of wearing out a lot of proverbial shoe leather, they are more interested in comfortably following the herd or taking an elevator to be interviewed on a talking heads show. Where is the innovation in reporting such complex stories? David LEONHARDT at The New York Times is one of the exceptions to this, but why has he not set an example that many others have chosen to follow? If we can come up with an answer to that question, we can solve an awful lot of other problems in the newspaper business and outside it a lot faster and better.

10:19 AM  
OpenID frankpetaluma said...

An interesting take on the situation. The only thing I would ask is to what extent does the fact that much of our "media" is (are?) owned by three or four large national (international?) corporations come into play here? Ownership does have its privileges after all.

7:08 PM  
Blogger BernardZ said...

Alan, much of the problem is the ideology which actually your own post shows. Try and see it from the view of the people who just got elected, and you will see what I mean.

7:28 PM  
Blogger The Big Blogger said...

Alan is absolutely correct. This is the best analysis of today's distressing economic situation I have yet read.

Other than Paul Krugman the press, both inside and outside the beltway, has merely repeated or treated as fact various tidbits of economic "common knowledge." Among them: that fiscal policy can be used to cause an economic recovery (despite happening in a world where the standing order to the Open Market Desk is to maintain the status quo): that the Federal Reserve works by lowering interest rates (despite the fact that the only rate the Fed can change is the overnight rate at which banks borrow from each other - and so assumes bankers will be stupid enough to borrow money for 24 hours and loan it out for weeks and months); that quantitative expansions such QE2 threaten long term inflation in the years ahead (despite the ability of the Federal Reserve to remove excess liquidity in hours - not weeks or months, hours); and that the Federal Reserve can achieve an expansion by providing more liquidity to banks (despite the FDIC simultaneously encouraging the banks on threat of seizure to hold the the additional liquidity as reserves).

The macroeconomic ignorance of Congress, the White House, and the press is staggering. The nation is paying a heavy price for that ignorance and the failure of the press to call the Congress and White House to account for it.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Just an observer said...

Newsosaur, you should stick to observations that focus on the practice of journalism, such as it is these days. I typically find you insightful on the topic. On economics, as with most journalists I have known, you betray a lack of depth of understanding. Paul Krugman, Nobel or no, is a fool and a damn poor economist. J.M. Keynes was abysmally wrong 80 years ago (with horrific consequences), and his followers have learned little since. Try tuning into http://cafehayek.com/ for some enlightenment.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

The other issue is that the news media continues to rely on traditional story telling and has not seriously incorporated Web 2.0 techniques into the game of politics. As a result most of us still don't know who our representatives are - nor does the media provide tools to make it easy for us to keep track of what are representatives are doing, give feedback, etc... So come election day, most of us walk into the voting booth fairly blind.

It's this failure to provide Americans easy to use tools to find, learn about and engage our representatives on an ongoing basis that drives the candidates need to spend millions on advertising - as few people really know much about the person.

Again, "non-news" organizations like Congress.org, www.visiblevote.us and Myrepresentatives.com (Full disclosure: I'm the founder of MyRepresentatives.com) among others are beginning to provide some of the basic tools. And if the news media are going to stay relevant they need to be aggressively looking at ways to help their subscribers not just read about politics but to participate in the political process on an ongoing basis.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Robert H. Heath said...

Alan,

Nice article, which I'll damn with the highest praise: "I wish I'd thought of that."

Many years ago, during the Reagan administrations, I commuted weekly between Washington DC (where I paid my rent and taxes) and Winston-Salem, NC (where I worked).

As a news junkie, I used to carry unread copies of the Washington Post and the Winston-Salem Journal both ways.

As a result, I developed a pretty keen sense of how inside-the-beltway stories were covered in the heartland. One particular Saturday, the WP had seven stories about Iran-Contra on the front page. The W-S Journal gave it maybe 14 column inches on page seven.

As the basic economics that have supported print journalism erode, we risk losing the perspective of some young journalist from North Carolina, Iowa or New Mexico who stands up and asks, "Mr. President, what are you doing for the unemployed voters in my state?"

11:26 PM  
Blogger petit said...

Alan, You're right on with Krugman. I think the failure to grasp the depth of the wounds that the economy's wounds inflicted was important, but perhaps not as critical as the failure to stand up forthrightly for the need to have a public sector vigorous enough to save the private sector from itself. The small government mania that has always gripped a portion of the conservative population became religion. The enemy of small business is not government taxes at the margins or regulation, it is unregulated big business. What people made wealthy by business need is not a slightly higher take-home income, but customers. And the slosh of money to the top has reduced spending power of average people considerably (as Bob Reich, along Krugman, has argued in NYTimes and elsewhere). Competitive capitalism is at risk in the drive to lower taxes further, cut government oversight further, and let a few Randian billionaires pull publicity levers at election time from anonymity. Monopoly and reckless gambling with other people's money, always a factor on Wall Street's ethos, will ramp up. Which leads to another truth you have identified: failure of so-called liberal media to say as much rather than declaring of themselves "Liberal? Not us!"
We're in for a rough ride. But we got through the Gilded Age intact, made it through the depression with FDR's legacy solid, we'll somehow get ourselves straightened out (for a new cycle). - Charlie P.

4:43 AM  
Blogger ptad said...

Alan, it's not that complicated. The President campaigned as a centrist, but governs as a leftist in a center right country. I mean really, "punish your enemies"?

5:01 AM  
Blogger Hwurzer said...

The problem is the press needs to restore its historical balance of covering our two party system. In the day of two newspaper communities, citizens were provided balance between liberal and conservative viewpoints. For the past several years of single newspaper markets, the liberal voice has prevailed. Most elections result in an approximate 53-47% split. One can reason that about half of our citizens political needs are not being met. Interesting, isn't it, that the two winners in the Nov 2010 elections were the Republicans in the House and FOX in it's audience drubbing of CNN's and MSNBC's political coverage .

6:29 AM  
Blogger Keith Moyer said...

Alan:

Hear, hear!

6:48 AM  
Blogger Ramblin' Man said...

Is there any problem in the world that exists now or has existed in the past that cannot be blamed on the media?

Frankly, I think Obama did much to try to turn the economy around and probably averted a depression that would have rivaled the Great Depression. Why, last week, I my 401k report showed that I earned a whopping 8 percent over the past quarter -- much, much better than the losses that had been posted.

If the media is to blame, I think it's because they did not take the Tea Party movement seriously enough. It's easy to pooh-pooh wild, fear-based, illogical arguments but in doing so, the media dismissed the gullibility of the masses who bought into it.

No, the economy is not stellar, but in many places where the Republicans swept up, life has not changed that much. I'm living in middle America earning significantly less than 6 figures, but my quality of life has not suffered and, over the last 6 months, I'd say it has improved.

Now we hear, America has sent a clear message that they want change. Really? Two years ago, they sent a clear message that they want change. Americans usually want change and they want it overnight.

I think the media did a swell job of giving a voice to the Tea Party movement without doing a great job of dissecting it in a way that people could understand and accept. Or, maybe there was too much information out there. I read a quip recently in an 1858 newspaper: A bigot's mind is like the pupil of an eye -- the more light you shine on it, the more it contracts.

All that being said, maybe this shift in power is a good thing; a single party can't be blamed for everything and the laws can't shift too far in one direction. Because if there's one thing Americans love more than change, it's no change.

7:25 AM  
Blogger The Big Blogger said...

The Press and the Econommy

Today the newspaper websites are full of a story about Federal Reserve governor Hoenig calling for the Federal Reserve to set higher interest rates. In making such a call, Mr. Hoenig reveals himself to be one of the many Federal Reserve and FDIC decison makers who never studied macroeconomics and/or never had any experience in the real world of business and banking. His uniqueness is that he presents the "common knowledge" that is at the other end of the usual and similarly ignorant Federal Reserve/ FDIC "common knowledge" which says that the Federal Reserve should set interest rates even lower.

Firstly, and contrary to the "common knowledge" prevailing among most journalists and other non-macroeconomists, the Federal Reserve does not function by changing interest rates, either up or down. It can only change one rate - the overnight rate banks charge each other to borrow reserves for 24 hours. Mr. Hoenig, Mr. Bernacke, and our journalists may be naive enough to think banks will borrow money for 24 hours and loan it out for months and years for consumer and business loans, but bankers are not so naive as to loan out money they will have to repay in 24 hours..

The Federal Reserve's primary tool to affect the economy's employment and production levels is not its imaginary interest rate policy, its via the Federal Reserve's control of the quantity of money in the economy. The Federal Reserve primarily does this via by buying assets with money it creates to put more money into the banks and selling assets to soak up money which it destroys.

Today some banks have loanable liquidity and the Federal Reserve says it will increase the total liquidity in the system by another $600 billion or so - which sounds like a lot but is actually a mere drop in the bucket compared to what is needed, probably not even enough to soak up our recent graduates let alone turn around the continuing decline in jobs and reduce bankruptcies and business closures.

Yes, normally such an expansion would cause a rapid expansion of bank loans as the banks put the additional liquidity to work earning interest for them - but not today. Today another department of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC are simultaneously encouraging the banks to either hold more liquidity in reserve (not loan it out) or risk being closed because they do not have "enough" reserves. In the real world bankers would rather keep their jobs so they hold the reserves in cash and federal debt and do not make loans to consumers and businesses.

The basic problem is that President Obama has retained and promoted economic officials (Bernacke, Geithner, Blair, Hoenig et al) who either never studied macroeconomics or did study it but have no idea how the real world of the banking system and business actually works as opposed to their theories about it. Their appointments to make economic decisions are comparable to the president appointing a bunch of dentists and chiropractors to the Supreme Court.
The president desperately needs to accept the resignations of these unqualified purveyors of "common knowledge" and replace them with macroeconomists with real world experience. Until that happens we shall have two competing camps of economic policy makers each spouting nonsensical "common knowledge" while millions of Americans continue to lose their jobs, their businesses, and their homes. If this unnecessary appointee-made disaster continues President Obama is certain to lose his job, and rightly so. Then the next president can appoint a qualified team of economic decision makers.

What I find so amazing is that the current economic malaise has particularly hurt journalism and journalists - and yet the publishers continue to retain reporters and columnists who merely accept and repeat the "conventional wisdom" from our economic decision makers as if it was somehow true - until their own pink slips arrive.

John Lindauer j398112@yahoo.com knowledge."

11:03 AM  
Blogger ~Marcus K. said...

I think you're right. We'll have to see what happens in the coming years. This may be the last chance before this country's really up the creek without a paddle. We definitely need to start holding the press accountable for what they report.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Mammonist said...

Alan, you have a wonderful, insightful blog but this is not a very persuasive posting. For one thing, there was simply no political support for a bigger fiscal stimulus, so no matter how much Paul Krugman and other thoughtful people might wish for it, it wasn't going to happen. Why is this so difficult to grasp? You could have read about it in the newspapers. That's why, now, we are stuck with monetary policy and monetary policy alone. Have you noticed who won the last election? That was in the papers too.

But there's a larger fallacy here, which is pointed out by at least one other commenter, and that is the habit of blaming everything in the world on the media (except of course anything good). Every time we get a new president, the press is branded a lapdog (using evidence gleaned from the press). In this case it's beyond ridiculous to implicate the media in our current economic troubles, unless of course you blame the press for global warming, the failure of the Yankees to advance to the World Series and, oh, the sinking of the Lusitania.

In a way, our troubles with the press are like our troubles with marriage: we are victims of our own inflated expectations. If you expect the media to both uncover and solve all the world's problems, you're going to be pretty unhappy with the media. And sure enough, everybody is. But don't worry. Soon we'll all retreat to our chosen sliver of the media that tells us only the things we already believe. And then we can be happy.

PS--If there's one big story the media really does habitually miss, it's that most of our problems are of our own making. But shhh! That's strictly off the record.

3:04 PM  
Blogger donica said...

I'm teaching a Journalism 101 course this semester with 75 students; two or three of them *might* be candidates for public affairs reporting. Many more aspire to be anchors on E!Tonight. The rest read links from their Facebook feeds and assume important news will come to them. Almost none of them would voluntarily read Paul Krugman. I'm guessing they are not significantly different from a wide swath of Americans today.

What does this mean? A few hypotheses:

The inside baseball approach to political reporting that you describe in your post -- in place for at least the past 30 years -- has successfully caused much of the country to tune out almost completely. If this is true, finding a new business model to support more of the same is a losing cause.

The media reflects the political culture. Both are in serious need of reformation. In this view, it's not that the media failed. It's that our current political structure, with the media as one important pillar, is failing.

Another way to describe it is that in a capitalistic marketplace of ideas, if the public doesn't demand balanced public reporting, the media won't provide it. The shrinking of the American newspaper is a symptom of that larger principle. Quality news becomes a niche product for a niche audience.

The relentless drive to provide endless entertainment gives people little appetite for 'serious' news delivered in serious ways. We will need fundamentally new ways to tell these types of stories.

Grassroots reporting, organizing and publishing may not have a sustainable business model but it could begin building faith in new forms of collective action. We need to rebuild some trust and faith in the political system before journalism will be able to thrive in the way you long for in your post.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

As with the old political axiom "People get the kind of government they deserve", most likely the same applies with media.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Elaine said...

The same could be said about reporters with company health insurance missing the human pain and economic toll of medically-caused bankruptcies. That the self-employed are iced out of fairness. That employere-sponsored insurance itself is a form of nanniness. In fact, the issue wasn't health "care" at all. We have care. It was about the needed regulation of a rogue industry, the only one of its type in any civilized democracy, that gambles on the medical fate of a population to pay out like a casino. THAT is what Obama was doing at the beginning of his term, reigning in these snakes. So the press (of which I, embarrassingly, am a member)failed on so many fronts it's difficult to say which corruption we missed, there's so much.

6:09 PM  

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