Instead of helping viewers understand the substance and real-world impacts of year-end budget negotiations, television news outlets are shutting economists out of their coverage and relying on political journalists to answer a less important question: Who's winning?
A study released Thursday found that cable and broadcast news organizations brought actual economists on air just 22 times in 337 segments on the negotiations from November 7 to 28, effectively barring economics from the conversation. Viewers without cable missed economic experts completely, as ABC, CBS and NBC failed to include them in dozens of segments.
Taxes and spending cuts were mentioned in many of the approximately 80 percent of segments that failed to discuss real-world economic impacts of austerity, but only in the context of figuring out which side has the upper hand in negotiations. Correspondents focused on how the day's inside-the-beltway developments impacted the likelihood of a deal or speculated on the political palatability of a deal for each party.
The November 26 edition of Fox News' Special Report, for example, featured back-to-back reports on the day's negotiating maneuvers, highlighting that various GOP legislators may defy Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform pledge and various developments in the budget talks made by both parties. However, neither segment discussed broader economic implications.
On the November 7 edition of CBS' Evening News, reporter Wyatt Andrews said Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had "started a public negotiation with the President," and that President Obama's stance on taxes "was his core argument in the campaign," but that Boehner failed to "sell Republicans on that upper income tax increase" in 2011. A followup segment with CBS' John Dickerson focused exclusively on how the election might have changed the two parties' "motivations," and "political fortunes." Neither segment mentioned economic impacts.
Panel discussions were rarely any more informative. For example, the November 26 edition of Special Report featured a panel of journalists -- Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller, Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Fox's Juan Williams -- discussing the "cliff." Host Bret Baier framed the segment by noting that higher taxes on the wealthy would not close the deficit on their own, and the panel proceeded to talk about the state of negotiations. The panelists made special note of the positions of President Obama -- under "tremendous pressure," according to Williams -- and Speaker Boehner, whose stance Goldberg called "utterly reasonable." And Carlson noted, "In any negotiation, the person who with the clear objective has the profound advantage." Baier also guided the discussion to highlight similarities between Boehner's statements and Mitt Romney's campaign positions. No one talked about the economic implications of any of the negotiating positions they discussed.
Even when panelists mentioned various tax or spending proposals, they returned almost immediately to politics. For example, the November 11 edition of CBS' Face The Nation, promoted arguments that those policies would be either "a fair compromise" or "very hard for Republicans."
In fact, the central theme of most panel discussions in the Media Matters study was not 'how would this affect working people,' but 'will this work for political elites?' This misguided focus reflects the same scoreboard journalism that fails to inform viewers adequately on the substance of a policy dispute, which media critics like NYU's Jay Rosen and The New Republic's Alec MacGillis criticized during the presidential election last summer. Here's Rosen:
What is the job of a political journalist today? Is it to describe the reality of American politics, as a "straight" reporter would? Or is it to defend reality and its "base" in American politics, more like a fact checker would? I know what you're thinking: the press should do both! ... There is no tension in it between insisting on truth and describing what works. Truth has seemingly become irrelevant. And that alone is a reveal.
Rosen was referring to coverage of attack ads, but when news organizations put the "insiders' game" above baseline truth in stories about policy, the effect is pernicious in a different way. Rosen explains:
When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win." Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can... well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," which is strange. [...] But even more insidious than that is the positioning effect. Remember what I taught you: to understand the ideas in play, ask how a given form of journalism positions us, the users of it. What's so weird about savviness is that it tries to position us as insiders, invited to speculate along with journalists and other players on how the mass public will react to the latest maneuverings. But the public is us. We are the public. But we are also the customers for the savviness product. Don't you see how strange that is?
During election season, journalists who put savvy above reality are helping campaigns to seduce voters into making their choice of representation based on style rather than substance. Today, that same mentality is depriving viewers of a clear understanding of the pointy end of the current budget impasse.
Economic experts might cut through the talking points noise and explain to viewers how actual Washington-insider choices will impact the rest of us. Their exclusion not only forces viewers to figure out the larger economic implications on their own, it allows the media to focus more on the political stakes for elites than on policy.
That type of news coverage helps elites and institutions manipulate the public, and does nothing to hold them accountable to the public interest.