The Media's "Deficit" Disorder

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

If it seems that relentless news coverage of the federal deficit is coming at the expense of covering other economic issues, such as employment, that's because it has. And if it seems that the conservative movement has been able to force the media to pay attention to precisely what they want them to (i.e. the deficit), that's because conservatives have.

The press is suffering from "deficit" overload and Tea Party leaders are likely quite pleased, having made deficit reduction a hallmark of far-right movement. Indeed, the deficit coverage illustrates what happens when Republican and conservatives frame a national issue: the Beltway press falls in line.

Deficit! Deficit! Deficit!

Or, as an NPR anchor recently put it while introducing a political discussion, "the massive public debt" represents "the biggest problem facing the nation."

Note however, that the media obsession is clearly out of sync with mainstream America, according to Gallup. And the latest CBS News poll found that when asked which issue is the most important one facing the country today, 48 percent said the economy and/or jobs, compared to just ten percent who selected the deficit.

We've seen this response time and again this year: News consumer peg the economy and jobs as being the most important issue of the day, while the Beltway press obsesses over the deficit [emphasis added]:

A majority of Americans, fifty-five percent, have said that either the economy in general or unemployment in particular is the most important problem facing the country in 2011, according to an average of Gallup's tracking poll results from January to May. Meanwhile, only thirteen percent of Americans have said that the federal budget deficit is the most important problem during a period where discussion of the deficit dominated the agenda in Washington.

Conservatives, and specifically "staunch conservatives," overwhelmingly rate the once-mundane issue of the deficit as being one of the most urgent issues facing the country, while the Tea Party has made reducing the deficit (in often radical ways) acornerstone of the far-right political movement.

By contrast, self-identified liberals express "the view that deficit reduction is not a top public policy priority this year,"according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Faced with a vast divide in how conservative and liberals view the issue, the press has sided with conservatives in terms of providing overboard "deficit" coverage. (i.e. It's "the biggest problem facing the nation.")

It's not just the amount of coverage, but the tone as well. It's Beltway news coverage that treats conservatives as experts in the deficit reduction game even though it was a Democratic president who oversaw the last robust federal surpluses. (And it was the previous Republican president who squandered them.) Conservatives are once again championing the same policies that proved so harmful to the economy, yet elite pundits and reporters obediently follow their lead, allowing them to set the parameters of economic debate.

Noting the economic failures by European governments that have recently embraced a conservative, deficit-slashing strategy during times of high unemployment, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman lamented "it's too bad, then, that these days you're not considered serious in Washington unless you profess allegiance to the same doctrine that's failing so dismally in Europe."

Indeed, that sort of stateside bowing to conservative rhetoric and agenda setting is becoming part of an easily identifiable pattern in which the press's coverage of economic issues (and especially economic issues that so clearly intersect with partisan politics) routine reflects the concerns and critiques of the right.

Last week we examined a related media phenomenon -- how the press corps had become infatuated with the "debt ceiling" discussions this year, and how that infatuation matches the Tea Party's obsession with the topic. Also, we looked at how the 2011 fascination far outstrips coverage in previous years when the federal debt ceiling had also been raised. (Newspaper coverage this year is already up nine times over previous "debt ceiling" years, and CNN's coverage has shot up twenty fold.)

Recall that during the winter of 2009 when Obama's stimulus bill was being debated in Congress, the nightly network news broadcasts routinely excluded any discussion of whether the stimulus package was too small, as notable economists argued at the time. (And they still argue that to this day.) Instead, the coverage was dominated by questions about whether the "giant," "massive" and "enormous" stimulus bill was too expensive and spending too much of taxpayers' money, which were the same arguments being pushed by Republicans.

Also in 2009, the Beltway press often echoed Republican talking points about the Democrats' proposed stimulus legislation, labeling it as nothing more than a "spending bill." (Note: It's legislation that spends money and stimulates the economy.)

Now, along comes the federal spending debate and once again the press seems to be reading off the GOP's "deficit" play sheet.

From May:

Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.

And this, from the National Journal's examination of the "deficit" news overload, as compared to "unemployment" coverage:

In the real world, news consumers crave jobs and employment coverage. But inside the Beltway media bubble, the deficit wins the day.

And conservatives cheer.

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