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The Ongoing Media Disaster

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Though it doesn't rival the debacle of the "liberal" media's lemming-like march to war in Iraq in 2003 behind the false claims of George W. Bush, this week has witnessed yet another reminder of the frequently insidious incompetence of important segments of our mainstream media. When the CBO issued a report on Tuesday about the effects of Obamacare on the labor market, it was unsurprising that Republicans immediately disseminated an obviously false interpretation of the report -- that Obamacare would result in over two million lost jobs over the next decade. The actual report stated that there would be a voluntary total reduction in work hours by employees as a result of the law. CBO estimated that some of this change would be due to older Americans who are not yet Medicare eligible deciding to stop working altogether because they would no longer need a job in order to secure affordable health care. A bigger source of the reduction in aggregate work hours would also be due to less well-off workers no longer needing to work as many hours to pay for health insurance, since the combination of subsidies and Medicaid expansion would disincentivize additional work. When you add it all up, CBO calculated that this voluntary reduction in work hours was the equivalent of two million jobs. One can debate the benefits and drawbacks of this development, though the former clearly appear to outweigh the latter.

Regardless, even Paul Ryan acknowledged yesterday that this is a fundamentally different claim than the original attack line -- that business would downsize by two million jobs, with vastly different implications for people's lives and well-being.

But in many precincts of the mainstream media, this was a (profound) difference over which it was not worth making a distinction. Having obviously botched the initial reporting by failing to communicate what CBO itself took obvious pains to make clear, lots of the usual suspects in the elite punditocracy pooh-poohed the original misreporting. Instead, they moved to their fallback position -- that facts don't matter. Instead, in this telling, what counts is how the (erroneously reported) story will play "politically." And in this interpretation of reality, the report would be sure to hurt the president and the Democrats. Such a tack requires eliding the simple truth that if the media got the details of the CBO study right, then the GOP could keep lying, but it would be highly unlikely that anyone outside their echo chamber would take them seriously. To the extent that there are relevant political consequences, those only follow from a story that gets traction in repeated retellings by media outlets. In other words, only by perpetuating and amplifying the lie, does the story have any real legs.

All of that, of course, assumes that elite pundits have a good idea in general of what moves voters, especially what will move them nine months from now. But the evidence is that they don't.

While the Nate Silvers and Sam Wangs of the world were predicting something like a four-point, 300-plus electoral vote Obama win for months in 2012, to hear many of our well-paid blatherers tell it, we were in a topsy-turvy roller coaster ride of an unpredictable election right down to the very end, based on a whole bunch of factors for which there is scant evidence of ultimate relevance to election outcomes.

In other words, the media types trumpeting the legitimacy of the horse-race angle of a story even if the facts are wrong is based on the faulty premise that they understand well the horse race angle.

But it still matters that they are so often this bad at their jobs. Central to their all-too-frequent mistakes are two very damaging tendencies, both byproducts of the pernicious effects of she-said/he-said reporting. One is to give some modicum of credence even to views that have no valid basis in reality. The second is the incapacity of much political coverage to come to terms with the unparalleled hostility to ordinary governing of one of our two major political parties, aided and abetted by the mainstream media's refusal to acknowledge the indisputably asymmetrical nature of political polarization today. All of which contributes to a climate in which there is a reduced political price for repeatedly lying, which in turn creates further obstacles to actually solving real and pressing problems.

On that score, though the "reporting" of the CBO story this week was especially aggravating, it was still less consequential than the ongoing media disaster surrounding the filibuster. Yesterday, despite the fact that a majority of Senators twice voted to extend unemployment benefits for three months, Republicans were able to kill those efforts. If you've gotten as far as third grade math, you know that if, out of 100 people, you've got more than 50 on your side, you have a majority. And according to the constitution of the United States, that is typically supposed to be sufficient to pass legislation. Except that it no longer is. The filibuster did not come into being in 2009, of course. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, its use by today's GOP is simply unprecedented. What was once a quite rare legislative maneuver has now become absolutely routine, with vastly more filibusters since Obama took office than under any previous president. As a result, as Kevin Drum described it, "for all practical purposes, anything more controversial than renaming a post office has required 60 votes during the entire Obama presidency."

As an example of how media continue to bend over backwards to cloud this reality, here's the deck yesterday of the New York Times story on the two unemployment votes yesterday:

"The Senate failed to move forward on a three-month extension of assistance for the long-term unemployed on Thursday, dealing a setback to President Obama's economic agenda."

Indeed. The Senate did fail to move forward. But this is a result of what amounts to a constitutional usurpation by Republicans -- the de facto enshrinement of 60 votes as necessary to pass almost all ordinary legislation. The Times' politesse in this matter is reminiscent of its persistent squeamishness about using the word "torture" when describing, you know, torture.

The real story here is not the generic failure of the Senate to "move forward." The real story is that, at a time when long-term unemployment is at historically high levels and wreaking havoc on families and communities and when the cost of the extension would be miniscule in budgetary terms, the GOP continues to insist on inflicting needless suffering on ordinary Americans. And they do so in defiance of strong popular support for the measure and, of course, of all previous legislative norms.

Eschewing the nitty-gritty of reporting that would actually inform the public, too many elite media types have, both by omission and commission, essentially assigned themselves the task of deliberately spreading misinformation. This can't really be what they originally signed up for.

Check out my musings on ESPN and other sports media here.

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