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.