THE BLOG
03/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Media Meltdown: How the Press Failed the Public in Covering the Stimulus Debate

There's a reason President Barack Obama left Washington, D.C. to speak directly with the American people about his economic recovery package, and it probably has something to do with the media's reporting on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In a public statement about media coverage of the bill, the Center for Economic and Policy Research declared that "[t]he media badly failed in its responsibility to inform the public about one of the most important policy proposals to come before in the Congress in the last decade."

Of course, the media failed us well before debate over the specifics of this legislation ever began, with their inadequate reporting on the warning signs of the financial crisis that made a stimulus plan necessary in the first place. In a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Philip Zweig and Stephen Pizzo argued that the media were nowhere to be found "while the biggest financial story of their lifetimes was playing out nationwide." The authors suggested that the media, and especially the business press, are partly to blame for the current financial crisis because they failed to "adequately warn the public of the abuses and dangers mounting on its main beats."

From the beginning of the economic recovery debate, the media were obsessed not with substance, but with politics. A study of cable news programs and the Sunday political talk shows by Media Matters found that between January 25 and February 8, during 139½ hours of programming in which the recovery package was discussed, there were 460 guest appearances, but only 25 by economists. Even when focusing on the politics, however, the media failed to provide balance. In two separate analyses, Think Progress found that on five cable news networks, "Republican members of Congress outnumbered their Democratic counterparts by a ratio of 2 to 1."

Moreover, the media essentially adopted the GOP's framing that the bill was a "spending" package, not a "stimulus" package. Not surprisingly, the media frequently provided a platform for and often took part in repeating conservatives' attacks on the bill, calling it "welfare" and "socialism." On at least three occasions, Fox News' Glenn Beck compared the recovery package to slavery.

The media also failed to put the legislation in any meaningful context; they failed to explain the underlying assumption behind the idea of an economic stimulus, or explore what effect specific provisions in the bill would or would not have on the economy. Additionally, the media's coverage was replete with claims that many economists say are simply not true: the bill will not stimulate the economy; government spending is not stimulative; food stamps and unemployment benefits do not provide economic stimulus; it may take years for the bill to create jobs; and the bill will spend more than $200,000 for every job it creates.

But perhaps more troubling was the media's failure to report basic facts, as reporters routinely repeated or failed to challenge false claims about what was actually in the bill. Numerous media figures repeated the allegation that over $4 billion in the stimulus would go to ACORN. In fact, the bill does not mention ACORN, let alone single it out for funding. Also false is the claim that the bill includes $30 million to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's home district. There is no language in the bill directing money to such a project. Fox News figures were fond of advancing the false claim that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid included a provision in the bill allocating $8 billion for a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The reality is that the bill does not direct high-speed rail funds to any specific project. Some in the media repeated the false claim that undocumented immigrants would be eligible for the bill's Making Work Pay tax credit. In fact, the bill specifically disqualifies anyone without a Social Security number from eligibility for those tax credits. Not surprisingly, all of these false claims just happened to be conservative talking points.

And during all of this, apparently oblivious to their own role in advancing conservatives' arguments against the bill, many in the media declared Republicans victorious in the "stimulus message war."

The media have a responsibility to cover policy issues in a substantive manner that allows the public to make informed decisions about the proposals advanced by their elected officials. If the media's performance in covering the recovery package is any indication of how they will report on Obama's plans to reform health care, address global climate change, and revitalize our educational system, the public will be done a tremendous disservice.