The first big test of Barack Obama's presidency didn't begin on the day he took office. It started on the campaign trail when then-candidate Obama promised to push for a $175-billion stimulus package to boost a flagging economy.
Once Obama was elected Nov. 4, 2008 a new campaign began - to get the stimulus through Congress while the size of the promises grew by billions of dollars. Along with solid Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, Obama enjoyed another advantage to push his plan - a strongly supportive news media. The media outlets that were covering the new president were the same ones many veteran journalists admit favored Obama during the campaign.
That played out as the economy became the main focus of the Obama transition. In the more than three months that followed the election, 176 reports on the stimulus battle filled the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows. President Obama pressed his case for the package on Feb. 5, telling ABC's 'World News with Charles Gibson:' 'We can't delay and we can't go back to the same worn-out ideas that led us here in the first place.'
Obama was trying to set the terms of the discussion. But on network news it was a one-sided debate at best with pro-stimulus voices overwhelming critics by more than a 2-to-1 margin. Reporters stressed the need for quick action on the bill and drew on America's bleakest economic times to show what would happen if the legislation failed - increased crime, higher unemployment or worse.
NBC's Scott Cohn warned of what might happen to one Indiana town in a Jan. 30 'Nightly News' report. 'Economic stimulus isn't just a political debate around here. It could be a matter of survival.'
With nationwide unemployment ending the study period at 7.6 percent, Elkhart was neither a good metaphor for the nation nor reflective of a potential 'Great Depression,' referenced in the president's speech. What was 'great' was the extent to which journalists supported the stimulus plan.
The Story Without a Story
All three networks regaled viewers with stories about the ever-increasing size of the stimulus package. Obama's campaign promise of a $175-billion bill went out the window soon after the election. By Nov. 23, ABC reported that Democrats 'concede it will be considerably larger' and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, was predicting 'between $500 billion and $700 billion.' When the bill was signed Feb. 18, the actual tally was higher still - $787 billion.
Yet the networks spent almost no resources looking at how this most-expensive bill of all time would be paid off. Out of 176 stories, just three mentioned the issue and only one of those addressed it in detail. That story, an ABC report, attempted to address 'What's the Fix?' for paying off the resulting debt from the stimulus.
ABC turned to Moody's economist Mark Zandi to answer the question. Zandi's pro-stimulus position was predictable. 'This is a risk we have to take because we have no other choice,' he told viewers Jan. 11.
Reporter Dan Harris then backed up Zandi: 'Most economists agree, we have no choice.' Harris did explain one possible outcome: it 'may mean cutting popular programs like Social Security and Medicare.'
Even former Clinton Director of the Office of Management and Budget Alice Rivlin was more open about what would happen than journalists. Rivlin, who is now an economist for the liberal Brookings Institution, warned government would have to raise money to pay for everything. 'We have big, big deficits looming ahead of us as the entitlements grow over the next few years. We're going to need more taxes, not less.'
NBC provided the single other mention of how government would cope with the hundreds of billions in spending. '[W]e know Obama has promised to roll back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans,' commented anchor Amy Robach. 'In effect, raising taxes on the people in that highest income tax bracket. Is that still his plan?' she asked. Reporter Savannah Guthrie responded that the 'only issue now is when.'
The remaining 173 stories - 98 percent of the total - focused on the ways the package might help or the political wrangling to get it past. Those stories ignored how taxpayers would account for more than $2,500 for every man, woman and child in America.
Spinning the Story by Picking the Spokesmen
The news shows turned to people from all walks of life to push the stimulus - from the president and his wife to congressmen, mayors and ordinary citizens. Supporters outnumbered any criticism by a total of more than 2-to-1 for the three networks.
Unemployment was one angle from which ABC, CBS and NBC introduced pro-stimulus speakers to push for the plan. As the stimulus plan grew in scope, network reporters depicted it as a panacea to solving the major problem of the day - unemployment. News accounts claimed rising jobless numbers underscored the need for a stimulus package.
CBS 'Evening News' anchor Katie Couric stressed that point during a Feb. 6 broadcast. 'If anything pushed the Senate to reach a deal, it was the latest numbers from the Labor Department today. They show the unemployment rate jumped in January to the highest level in 16 years, 7.6 percent, as the economy lost nearly 600,000 jobs, the worst month in 35 years.'
ABC anchor Charles Gibson used the same tactic the very same night, claiming 'one of the reasons there's been such pressure on the Congress to get a stimulus package is the depth of the recession, which was made crystal clear by the latest unemployment report today.'
Rising unemplyment gave the networks a chance to leave Washington and turn to local spokesmen and women for the stimulus package. In a Jan. 28 CBS 'Evening News' story about Braddock, Pa. Reporter Cynthia Bowers summed up the town's plight as 'a town with a past desperate to forge a future.' Braddock Mayor John Fetterman made the pitch for the bailout - 'we're not looking for a handout so much as we are looking for a hand up.' Naturally, 'he's looking to President Obama's economic stimulus package for help,' Bowers said.
NBC turned to Mayor Ronald Loveridge of Riverside Calif. in a Nov. 24 piece and he asked to 'invest in our infrastructure.' Reporter George Lewis replied 'Cities hoping to avoid the worst of the Depression-era hard times even as more businesses today are shutting their doors.'
Other stories relied on the unemployed themselves - especially in Elkhart, Ind. where Obama visited to promote his package. ABC's Jake Tapper said the recession 'clobbered' the community's recreational vehicle industry and 'thousands of people including Ed Neufeldt lost their jobs.' Then Neufeldt took over. 'It's kind of sad to, to walk by and see where you once worked and made your livelihood. And now that it's closed down, it's just a, just a sad feeling,' he said. Neufeldt introduced the president during his visit to Elkhart.
In case unemployment wasn't enough to promote the package, reporters could point to other threats A Feb. 4 ABC story detailed the dangers of crime because of limited local budgets. 'Well local governments are counting on the stimulus package to help with their budget shortfalls,' Gibson said. The rest of the story depicted two police officials coping with budget cuts and a citizen 'completely worried for the kids.'
If the Economists Are Left, It's Alright
At a time of economic turmoil, it's only natural for journalists to turn to economists for expert analysis of complex issues like the stimulus package. But economists rarely agree - either in theory or practice - unless they are hand-picked by network journalists.
NBC's Trish Regan characterized the network attitude well in her Feb. 7 story. 'I can tell you, Lester, that the economists I'm talking to on both sides of the aisle feel that it is very important right now for the government to start spending.' That wasn't accurate, but it did reflect many journalists' insular view of the plan.
ABC's Betsy Stark used a similar take in a Jan. 8 story about rising unemployment - relying on 'most economists' as if the networks had done a survey. 'The question is, would it [unemployment] go even higher in the absence of a stimulus plan. And most economists agree it would.'
Certainly most ABC talked with. That's because ABC relied on a host of liberal economists to promote the stimulus plan. The network turned to pro-stimulus economists by a factor of 9-to-1 over economists who questioned the package.
A Jan 28 'World News with Charles Gibson' story interviewed three economists including Mark Zandi, who openly supported the stimulus, Rosanne Altschuler of the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center, and former Federal Reserve Gov. Laurence Meyer. Not one of them graded the bill lower than a B.
Another ABC report quoted Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, which is headed by President and CEO John Podesta, also co-chair of the Obama transition.
New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman appeared five times on ABC and NBC - more than critical economists appeared on all three networks. Krugman's only consistent complaint about the stimulus has been that it is never big enough to satisfy him. 'Whatever the financial system needs. It needs more money, fine. And fiscal stimulus, big, fast. With this - this economy is, is desperately in need of life support. They've got to create more jobs more or less directly to, to offset this slump,' he told NBC Nov. 8.
The Cato Institute gave the networks an ideal opportunity to provide some economic balance to the news coverage - an opportunity they completely ignored. On Jan. 28, the free market think tank ran an ad in The New York Times that challenged the stimulus spending. More than 250 economists argued 'we the undersigned do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance.' The ad included three Nobel laureates - Edward Prescott and George Mason's Vernon Smith and James Buchanan. (Four of those who signed the ad - Donald Boudreaux, John Lott, Walter Williams and Gary Wolfram - are advisers to the Business & Media Institute.)
None of the economists in the ad appeared on any of the three evening news broadcasts during the entire stimulus battle.
Economist Zandi summarized the attitude of the economists the networks highlighted during a Dec. 22 CBS story. 'There is a big void in our economy, and only government can fill it,' he said.
The stimulus vote was the most important test for a new presidency - not just for politicians, but for the media. Voters overwhelmingly said that that the media wanted Barack Obama to become president, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People. 'By a margin of 70%-9%, Americans say most journalists want to see Obama, not John McCain, win on Nov. 4,' wrote Pew.
At the same time, even many journalists had been equally critical of the campaign coverage. Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell said there was a 'tilt toward Democrat Barack Obama' in her paper. Time magazine's Mark Halperin called the coverage a 'disgusting failure' and complained of 'extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage."
The stimulus fight was an opportunity for the media to distance themselves from those criticisms and handle an issue of major national importance in a balanced and useful manner. All three networks failed in this regard.
Chief among the problems was the unwillingness by the networks to look at the long-term impact of an $800-billion stimulus bill. How will America pay for the largest bill in history? Viewers weren't told. Only one story specifically addressed the issue and that was one-sided. Two other stories made just casual mentions.
There was more. Reporters became easily caught up in the political battle between Republicans and Democrats and focused less on making sure both sides of the issue were represented. One notable exception to this was CBS reporter Chip Reid who handled the story in a balanced manner.
The coverage at ABC and NBC didn't meet the same standard. Those networks repeatedly relied on supporters of the bill to comment on it. Ordinary citizens were trotted out to show support for stimulus as if it were guaranteed to fix the nation's economic woes.
Hundreds of economists felt differently. The Cato Institute found more than 250 to oppose the stimulus plan. Not one of those appeared on the networks. Instead, viewers heard from a steady stream of pro-stimulus economic experts.
What is especially ironic is how the battle has been characterized after the fact. According to a Feb. 10 piece by NBC political researcher Domenico Montanaro, 'Democrats lost the public relations war and control of the message.' And that's with overwhelmingly favorable coverage from the evening news. Would the bill have been able to pass had the networks covered it in an unbiased fashion? Viewers will never know.
The Business & Media Institute analyzed 176 'stimulus' stories on the evening news shows of all three broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - from Nov. 5, 2008, to the Senate approval on Feb. 10, 2009. BMI graded statements either for the stimulus package or defending it against political attack as positive and those criticizing the package as negative.
While the stimulus battle appears over, the economic problems are not and other similar votes will follow. Here are some recommendations for the networks to improve their coverage:
- Ask How We Are Going to Pay for It: The stimulus bill is the most-expensive in history - yet only three stories out of 178 even raised the issue. Only one piece by ABC actually attempted to address the long-term fiscal impact. Journalists have an obligation to ask the most basic questions, including how we are going to pay for it and when.
- Not Every Issue Is Left or Right: At different times in the stimulus debate conservatives and liberals questioned the spending, but this wasn't about those sides. Those for and against the package were not represented equally. Reporters have to balance supporters and opponents, not just political parties to give criticism a fair hearing.
- Expand the Rolodex of Economists: One of the biggest flaws in the reporting was a reliance on TV-friendly economists - most of whom strongly supported the stimulus package. There were others - hundreds just in one advertisement that ran in major newspapers - who opposed the entire package. Not one of them was quoted.
- Avoid Shallow Sound-Bite Reporting on the Economy: The economy is too complex for shorthand descriptions. Typically, economists disagree about how good or bad the U.S. financial picture truly is. Modern-day journalists have no trouble including the negative, but need to make an effort to give audiences a more balanced view.