REPORT: Immediately After Shutdown Deal, Print Media Pivot To Debt Reduction

››› ››› ALBERT KLEINE & CRAIG HARRINGTON

In the week following the end of the 16-day government shutdown, major print media outlets shifted their attention to upcoming bipartisan budget negotiations. This coverage of budget priorities was far more likely to mention the need for deficit and debt reduction than economic growth and job creation, despite economists warning that growth is the more pressing concern.

Print Media Focus On Deficit And Debt Reduction

Need For Economic Growth Mentioned In Only 14 Articles. In the first week following the enactment of a deal to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling, major print outlets -- The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times -- were more than three times as likely to mention deficit and debt reduction as priorities over economic growth and job creation.

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Disparity Of Economic Priorities Spread Across Outlets. The overwhelming focus on debt and deficit reduction over economic growth was evident in all three outlets. The New York Times and Washington Post mentioned the need for economic growth as a priority in only four articles, while The Wall Street Journal mentioned it in six stories.

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Long-Term Entitlement Costs Account For Significant Portion Of Calls For Debt Reduction. Of the articles mentioning the need for debt and deficit reduction as a priority across all three print outlets, 24 mentioned that addressing costs of entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, was necessary.

Economists Identify Growth As More Pressing Than Deficit Reduction

Lawrence Summers: Deficits Are A "Second-Order Problem." In an October 13 op-ed in The Washington Post, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers noted that current debates over deficits and debt distracts from discussing the need for increased employment and economic growth.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that most of the substance being debated in the current crisis is only tangentially relevant to the major challenges and opportunities facing the United States. This is the case with respect to the endless discussions about the precise timing of continuing resolutions and debt-limit extensions, or the proposals to change congressional staff health-care packages or cut a medical-device tax that represents only about .015 percent of gross domestic product.

More fundamental is this: Current and future budget deficits are now a second-order problem relative to other, more pressing issues facing the U.S. economy. Projections that there is a major deficit problem are highly uncertain. And policies that indirectly address deficit issues by focusing on growth are sounder in economic terms and more plausible in political terms than the long-term budget deals much of the policy community is obsessed with. [The Washington Post, 10/13/13]

Jared Bernstein: Discussing Deficits "Is Not The Debate We Should Be Having." In an October 18 post on The New York Times Economix blog, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior fellow Jared Bernstein claimed that the new focus on reducing short and long term deficits and debt is misplaced, and instead issues of jobs, poverty, and inequality should be highlighted.

Imagine instead that the politicians turned not to the budget deficit but to the jobs deficit, the infrastructure deficit, to poverty, wage stagnation, immobility and inequality. Along with a budget conference -- and don't get me wrong; I'm glad they're talking -- imagine there was an economic conference to make recommendations on what's really hurting the country, which I assure you is not our fiscal situation. That's taking care of itself for the short term, as is always the case after a recession (deficits go up in recessions, for obvious reasons).

[...]

I'm surely going to jump into the budget debate myself any minute now, but before I do, I wanted to point out that this is not the debate we should be having. It's the preferred debate of those who seek to shrink the role of government, to undermine social insurance, to reduce needed investments in public goods and human capital, and to protect the concentrated wealth of the top few percent. [The New York Times, 10/18/13]

Methodology

Media Matters conducted Nexis and Factiva searches of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post from October 17 to October 23 using the following search terms: debt limit or debt ceiling or negotiat! or budget or shutdown.

We did not include online-only articles and letters to the editor.

We defined articles that mention deficit and debt reduction as priorities as those that specifically express a current need to address spending, revenue, and reforms to reduce federal budget deficits and debt in both the near and long term.

We defined articles that mention economic growth and job creation as priorities as those that specifically express a current need to increase economic growth and employment.

We defined articles that mention addressing entitlement costs as priorities as those that specifically express a current need to reform spending and revenues for programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

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