NEW YORK -- After two years reporting on President Barack Obama's nearly $800 billion stimulus package, a piece of legislation long derided by Republicans and barely discussed now by Democrats, Time senior national correspondent Michael Grunwald concludes in a new book that the conventional wisdom in Washington political and media circles is all wrong.
In "The New New Deal," Grunwald argues that the 2009 stimulus package -- officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- produced meaningful, if hidden, change in areas like clean energy, education reform, health care, and transportation, while also helping to save the free-falling U.S. economy. While likening the Recovery Act to FDR-era reforms, he writes that the "impact has been less obvious than the original New Deal's, but it's just as real."
And the national media, he says, got the story all wrong.
"I do think, in a way, the coverage of the stimulus was as bad as the coverage of the Iraq War," Grunwald said in a Monday interview with The Huffington Post, a reference to the pack mentality of Washington reporters hyping the Bush administration's bogus pre-war intelligence. "In many ways, it was the same kind of phenomenon."
Grunwald, who now resides in South Beach, said the stimulus coverage was "the same kind of Washington groupthink" as before the Iraq War, in which "the prevailing narrative just takes over."
"If I had lived in Washington," he said, "I don't think I could have written this book."
Grunwald has broken with conventional wisdom in the past, such as when he questioned whether the environmental damage following the BP oil spill was exaggerated. In writing about the Recovery Act, Grunwald suggests it was even tougher to offer a contrarian take since the legislation had become "a punchline."
"Being earnest about it was being incredibly naïve," Grunwald said. "Saying the stimulus was a 'new new deal' was not contrarianism, but was seen as delusional -- like saying [the BP spill] never happened. It was truther stuff."
In the book, Grunwald writes about how Republicans, in coordination with the conservative media and think tanks, were more successful in framing the stimulus as a failure.
It helped that Republicans had access to the ideological network that Hillary Clinton famously dubbed the 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' which was almost as effective as paranoid left-wingers imagined. A private listserv served as the stimulus wing of the VRWC, injecting Republican talking points into the media bloodstream. [Sen. McConnell aide Derek Kan] and a few other Hill aides would post information about government supercomputers, abandoned mine cleanups, and other stimulus flotsam and jetsam to a Google Groups file, so they could be launched into the conservative blogosphere by writers like Michelle Malkin, think tanks like Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, and activist groups, like the National Taxpayers Union and the Club for Growth. Soon they would become fodder for Drudge, Fox celebrities like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and the Limbaugh brigade of talk-radio hippie-bashers.
But it wasn't just conservative media piling on the stimulus; the national media did too.
Grunwald writes that the tone of coverage "was set the day Obama signed the Recovery Act," which coincided with the launch of recovery.org, a website that was supposed to provide transparency for where stimulus funds were allocated. But on the day of the signing, Grunwald writes, it still wasn't clear "how much money any particular community would get from the ear-mark free bill" and thus the site couldn't be as specific as some might have expected and the media pounced. An Associated Press headline: "Promises, Promises: Web Site Likely to Fall Short."
"On Day One, though, the AP was already writing the obituary for Obama's promise of greater openness," Grunwald wrote. "Even from the start, the narrative was: What a mess."
Grunwald specifically knocks USA Today's Brad Heath for writing "gotcha" stories suggesting reckless spending on the part of the government, while noting that other outlets were similarly doing their own "fleecing of America"-type pieces.
"Reporters are supposed to follow the money, hold public officials accountable, and shine a light on failure; investigations that don't uncover wrongdoing don't make Page One or win prizes," he wrote. "But something about the stimulus seemed to turn reporters into runaway prosecutors, desperate to pin something on their target."
Grunwald said he's lucky that his initially skeptical bosses allowed him to write the opposite of what everyone was saying about the stimulus roughly 1,000 miles north in the capital.
"The idea that all of Washington could have gotten this story 100 percent wrong did not strike me as a far-fetched possibility," Grunwald said. "I think Washington gets lots of stories 100 percent wrong."
Grunwald discussed his book Sunday on MSNBC's "Up with Chris Hayes." Video below: