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.

The Financial Crisis and Horse Race Journalism

In 2001, the events of 9/11 were covered by the news media in a way that reassured and unified an angry and fearful country.  In 2008, a financial crisis that in its own way is as dire as 9/11 is being covered in ways that are divisive and infuriating.

At the root of the problem is the colossal failure of reporters to report the crisis, in the context of the presidential campaign, objectively and in a way that challenges the major party candidates to address the issue with the seriousness it demands.

Before it is over our financial and economic distress will almost certainly take the life savings and the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people, and perhaps many more.  But by the evidence to date, reporters don’t get it.  So taken are they with the “horse race” conventions of political reporting that they have reduced even this, the worst economic portents since the Great Depression, to the familiar banalities of their stock in trade: who’s up, who’s down, and polls galore.

This, plus of course, their own political spin on things.  Thus are we told that the financial mess works to  Barack Obama’s political advantage …  and not much more.

Whether reporters perform this way because they are biased in favor of the Democratic Party and Democratic policies, or because they are themselves clueless about all things economic, or because they are, perforce, tethered to the inadequacies of the politicians they cover (with the correct answer being all of the above), makes not the tiniest bit of difference.

The stark fact is that the national news media have underreported and misreported virtually every important aspect of our national nightmare: how we got into it, how we can prevent it from happening again, and, most importantly, how we can escape its worst effects now — and how our national leaders can help us.  

Here at The Media Institute, which receives all of its financial support from media companies, we spend most of our time promoting the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  This means that we promote those laws and regulations that maximize freedom of speech and of the press — something we will continue to do whatever the media’s journalistic shortcomings.

But at a time when all of the legacy media are in grave jeopardy — first from the competitive effects of the Internet, and now from the struggling economy — they are not making it any easier for themselves or for us.  If worse comes to worst, the people of this country are unlikely to forget or forgive the role the media have played at this crucial hour.