The Media and the Economy

Virtually everyone who’s taken an objective look at the subject agrees that media coverage of the presidential race was tilted in favor of president-elect Obama. The latest to make the claim is Time magazine’s Mark Halperin, who last week characterized “extreme pro-Obama coverage” as “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war.”

Late last month, a study by the Pew Research Center found that by a margin of 70%-9% (including over 60% of Democrats and Independents), Americans said journalists wanted to see Obama win on November 4. Even the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, corroborated the charge. “Readers,” she said, “have been consistently critical of the lack of probing issues coverage and what they saw as a tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama. My surveys, which ended on Election Day, show that they are right on both counts.”

So for 70% of the people of this country, the media’s performance was noted. And for 46%– those who voted for McCain– it was noted and resented, thereby further alienating a large part of the audience of the foundering newspaper and broadcasting industries, a woeful aspect of contemporary journalism that’s been mentioned here before.

But there’s another feature of the media’s campaign coverage that is the subject of this note, also mentioned here before: the failure of political reporters generally to focus their coverage on the issue which mattered most– the extraordinary financial and economic crisis, and what, if anything, the candidates knew, or proposed to do, about it.

An item reported on Bloomberg shapes the problem nicely: “Obama’s program will be far larger than the $175 billion package of tax cuts and stepped-up government spending he proposed just a month ago. Some of his advisers, and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, have suggested a figure of $700 billion.”

In a country in which trial lawyers routinely work their will on juries comprised of people who have no conception of the difference between, say, a million and a billion, the difference between what Obama was saying then and what his aides are saying now may seem to many like no big deal.

But as people come to understand, however imperfectly, that this is a piper they’ll have to pay, they may look upon the matter differently, especially if the effects of the stimulus and bailout plans don’t come in time or in numbers sufficient to save their jobs, or homes, or life savings.

There is no suggestion here that substantial and intelligent media coverage of the economy would have changed the election results. For that to have been the case, even in theory, would have required an opponent with a far stronger grasp of economic issues than John McCain, about whom it may fairly be said that no presidential candidate in recent history was more inarticulate or unpersuasive.

But by their neglect of the economic issue, political reporters disserved the nation as a whole, and left the people utterly unprepared to vet the candidates’ economic proposals, then or now. That they did this while also clearly favoring Obama just adds journalistic insult to civic injury.