Declaring GOP winner in "stimulus message war," media oblivious to their cohort's role in skewing debate

››› ››› MORGAN WEILAND

Many in the media have proclaimed the GOP the winner in the "stimulus message war" over President Obama and congressional Democrats. But they often do so with no self-reflection or acknowledgment of their cohort's role in advancing the Republicans' side in the debate through the credulous repetition of falsehoods and other Republican talking points.

Many in the media have proclaimed the GOP the winner in the "stimulus message war" over President Obama and congressional Democrats. But they often do so with no self-reflection or acknowledgment of their cohort's role in advancing the Republicans' side of the debate through the credulous repetition of falsehoods and other Republican talking points.

Jeanne Cummings, the Politico's chief lobbying and money correspondent, wrote that Obama is "losing [the] stimulus message war." She is far from alone:

  • In a February 4 news analysis in The Los Angeles Times, Peter Wallsten asserted that "[a] surprisingly unified GOP has taken control of the debate" about the stimulus plan.
  • The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid referenced in a February 6 article "Republicans' remarkable success during the past two weeks ... shaping a public image of the bill as pork-laden and ineffective."
  • Newsweek senior editor Michael Hirsh wrote in a February 4 piece that Obama "has allowed the GOP to turn the haggling over the stimulus package into a decidedly stale, Republican-style debate over pork, waste and overspending." Hirsh continued: "Team Obama and his party are losing the debate" about the stimulus plan.
  • On the February 5 broadcast of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe claimed the Democrats' "messaging has not worked." Wolffe also stated of the administration: "What they haven't done is say, hey, it's not just about spending. It's about mitigating, softening the blow of this recession for regular, working Americans. That's the bit they've failed on. They've let it be hijacked by all this extraneous spending programs."
  • On the February 5 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin asserted that "official Washington has decided Obama is losing the PR war on the stimulus." She went on to air a clip of Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report, asserting, "The Republicans have successfully defined the stimulus bill as too much pork."

Yet in declaring the Republicans the victors of the stimulus debate, and in some cases attributing that victory to Republican achievements or Democratic failures, none of the above media figures acknowledged the role their colleagues played in promoting the GOP's often-skewed representations of the bill.

Indeed, Media Matters for America has documented numerous examples of media echoing, repeating, or advancing variations of Republican talking points about the economic stimulus plan, many of which are false or misleading. For instance:

The bill will not stimulate the economy

Government spending in the bill is not stimulus

There is no reason for stimulus after a turnaround begins

Corporate tax rate cuts and capital gains tax rate cuts could provide substantial stimulus

Undocumented immigrants without Social Security numbers would be eligible for the "Making Work Pay" tax credit

CBO analysis found the majority of stimulus won't take effect for at least a year and a half

Food stamps and/or unemployment payments are not stimulus

The economic recovery bill would amount to spending more than $200K per job created

Up to $4.19 billion of stimulus bill "would go to" ACORN

Family planning provision is like China's "one-child policy"; could allow government "to regulate the amount of kids people might be in the moods for"

It "may take years before the stimulus plan spurs real job growth" or the plan may not "create any new jobs"

From the February 5 edition of MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

DAVID SHUSTER (host): We've heard from so many Democrats over the last couple of days that they felt this was getting away in terms of message -- in terms of controlling the message, owning the media right of this story. And, in fact, it does seem that the easier punch lines are being delivered by Republicans.

Here's Congressman [Roger] Wicker [R-MS], who was talking about how big this package is, and trying to put it into a context that might be easier for people to understand than the context that the Obama White House has been offering. Here's the representative. Watch.

WICKER [video clip]: If you began spending $1 million per day on the day Jesus was born, and you spent $1 million per day every day since that time until today, you would still not have spent anywhere near $1 trillion.

SHUSTER: It's hard to -- it's hard to battle against that stuff.

WOLFFE: Back to the baby Jesus. You know, yes, it's hard because they haven't explained a convincing narrative for why the stimulus works the way it does. So, you know, that's what I mean by having the scattergun approach that has taken them to pieces.

Having the president at this stage, wheeling him out so often and so early, is a sign of how the messaging has not worked. He is still their best card. He is still popular. But look how his popularity has declined. They cannot afford to lose 10 points a week, because by the time they get to the six-month stage, they really won't have that much left to go.

[...]

SHUSTER: Richard, Senator John McCain took issue at the Obama White House today, saying that this was not a bipartisan effort to get this bill crafted.

Here's Senator McCain from the Senate floor earlier today.

McCAIN [video clip]: And we ought to change the way that we are conducting this legislation in a partisan, nonconsultative fashion. And if the -- if the leadership can peel off two or three Republicans, that's an accomplishment they will make. But it's not bipartisanship.

SHUSTER: Is he right, and does it matter?

WOLFFE: I think he's going to find it very hard -- I think Republicans are going to find it very hard to argue about being consulted here.

The president has had them over for cocktails and cookies. He's gone an extra mile or five to try and get Republican votes here.

The fact that this isn't going to be a really bipartisan vote -- there are just going to be a handful -- is clearly a disappointment to the White House. But in terms of the messaging, that's the one thing this White House has got right.

What they haven't done is say, hey, it's not just about spending. It's about mitigating, softening the blow of this recession for regular, working Americans. That's the bit they've failed on. They've let it be hijacked by all this extraneous spending programs. But when it comes to working with the other party, I mean, the president has gone much further than President Bush.

From the February 5 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:

(begin video clip)

YELLIN: A hard sell from the president.

OBAMA: If we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse. Crisis could turn into a catastrophe for families.

YELLIN: And a photo-op from his number two.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The economy is in trouble, and the need is urgent.

YELLIN: This team is on a belated campaign to sell the stimulus and answer charges it's just a whole lot of pork.

SEN. JON KYL (R-AZ): There is so much wasteful Washington spending in this bill, it's hard to know where to start.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): We're on different planets. We're literally making this up as we go.

YELLIN: But with headlines like this, official Washington has already decided President Obama is losing the PR war on the stimulus.

STUART ROTHENBERG (editor, The Rothenberg Political Report): The Republicans have successfully defined the stimulus bill as too much pork.

YELLIN: It has been a rough week, dominated by stories about Cabinet-level tax flaps. When the president fanned out across the TV networks to combat attacks on the stimulus, the interviews were dominated by the Daschle news.

OBAMA: You know, I think this was a mistake. I think I screwed up.

YELLIN: And even on the topic of the stimulus, the president was on the defensive.

OBAMA: No, no, I don't think we've lost the message.

YELLIN: Funny, that doesn't sound a whole lot like this man.

OBAMA: We can change this country. In three days, you can turn the page. Tomorrow, at this defining moment in history, you, each and every one of you, can give this country the change that we need.

YELLIN: Change takes time. That's what President Obama says these days. Certainly more than two weeks. But how patient are the American people?

ROTHENBERG: I don't think Americans are very patient on this. They want action. They want something.

(end video clip)

YELLIN: The chattering classes are quick to judge President Obama, certainly quicker than the rest of the general public. But the issue to watch is the economy. For now, the economy is a problem President Obama inherited. The question is, how long until it's a problem he owns. He's going to be continue -- he will continue to be judged by expectations he set high, Lisa.

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