In recent weeks, some mainstream media figures and outlets have pushed outdated arguments for austerity and misguided calls for bipartisanship in covering the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package — which is expected to clear Congress this week — putting the onus for GOP obstruction on Democrats and emphasizing debt and inflation concerns that economists say are unwarranted amid a historically devastating crisis.
Some in the media have emphasized the lack of Republican support for the relief bill, suggesting that Democrats should have done more to get GOP votes. Yet, the proposal -- which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, extended unemployment benefits, child allowances, state and local aid, and resources for vaccine distribution and health care -- has widespread, bipartisan support. According to a recent poll by Politico and Morning Consult, 76% of voters approve of the bill, including 60% of Republicans. Polls have also indicated that voters favor a strong relief package over a more targeted bipartisanship measure by roughly 2-to-1.
The conclusion that Democrats could have received GOP support also assumes that the Republican Party is objecting to the current bill in good faith, when the party has repeatedly demonstrated that it will prioritize partisanship and obstruction over valid compromise at the expense of Americans continuing to wait for aid.
Other media figures have used concerns about the debt and the threat of inflation to undermine the bill, a debate which was largely spurred by a February 4 Washington Post opinion column by former Obama economic adviser Larry Summers. He claimed that “the proposed Biden stimulus is three times as large as the projected shortfall” in the economy and warned that it “threatens future inflation and financial stability.” Many economists say these concerns are outdated in 2021, as opposed to in the late 20th century when inflation fears were more prevalent, suggesting that any rises in inflation can be controlled and will have a relatively small impact. They have also noted the U.S. has better tools and mechanisms for controlling inflation now, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell have echoed these points:
In a note released on Thursday, UBS economists led by Alan Detmeister stated that the stimulus probably wouldn't cause a surge in inflation, with any inflation effects “likely to be small." On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs economists led by Jan Hatzius also signaled a low possibility of inflation, estimating the US output gap is more than twice the size projected by the CBO, meaning that the hole in the economy that Biden is trying to fill is actually pretty close to $1.9 trillion.
On a CNBC appearance later in February, Yellen said inflation has been “very low for over a decade, and you know it's a risk, but it's a risk that the Federal Reserve and others have tools to address."
Yellen's comments echo those of the current Fed chair, Jerome Powell, who sees a huge difference between now and the aforementioned 1970s. “Inflation has been much lower and more stable over the past three decades than in earlier times," Powell said this week in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. “In the 1970s, when inflation would go up, it would stay up," he said.
In addition to pushing concerns about the federal debt rising and leading to inflation, some mainstream media figures have suggested that recent signs for economic optimism, combined with spending from past stimulus bills, mean that the current stimulus package is too large and unnecessary -- effectively privileging austerity concerns over the communities still struggling during this time.
The jobs report and recent cautious optimism regarding vaccines do not mitigate the fact that the economy is still in dire shape compared to pre-pandemic times. Approximately 10 million people remain unemployed as of February, with an overall U.S. unemployment rate at 6.2%, and there’s evidence showing the economy may not return to pre-pandemic employment numbers for the rest of this decade. The last week of February saw another 1.2 million people apply for unemployment insurance benefits, and “continuing claims are currently nearly 16 million above where they were a year ago.”
Further, Black and brown workers who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus are facing similar disparities with the recession. The February jobs report showed that unemployment for Black workers increased from pre-pandemic levels to 9.9%, nearly 4.3 percentage points higher than their white counterparts. The disparities seen in the economic impacts of the pandemic are compounded by the unequal access to vaccines in Black and brown communities across the country, while these communities have been similarly hit hard by coronavirus cases and deaths.
Amid a crisis of historic proportions with a devastating impact, it’s imperative that the media properly convey the impact of the bill and the reality of the situation it's addressing. Yet some media figures and outlets are still consumed by prioritizing norms above all else, straining for bipartisanship and pushing outdated fears about the threat of government debt and inflation. Here is an overview of how they’ve pushed these concerns in coverage of the relief bill:
Calling out Democrats for “pushing” the bill through despite a lack of GOP support, emphasizing bipartisanship and unity
- A March 5 Washington Post article on the stimulus package began by emphasizing that “Democrats moved forward with no GOP support after failing to win over a single Republican senator.”
- The Associated Press published a March 4 article titled “Eager to act, Biden and Democrats leave Republicans behind,” which began by claiming that Democrats are “jamming their agenda forward with a sense of urgency, an unapologetically partisan approach based on the calculation that it’s better to advance the giant COVID-19 rescue package and other priorities than waste time courting Republicans who may never compromise.”
- CNN anchor Dana Bash asked Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) to respond to a Republican accusation that it’s a “joke” that President Joe Biden tried to work with Republicans on the bill. After Coons explained that “the urgency of this issue means he's moving ahead,” Bash pressed further, saying that “talking is one thing and actually making concessions and doing deals on something like this is a different thing. And he’s saying there was no real effort on that. That’s fair, don’t you think?”
- The Washington Post published a video analysis titled “Why the candidate who promised unity is relying on an increasingly partisan legislative process to pass coronavirus relief.” The Post explained that the video analyzes “how Biden’s calls for unity could clash with his reliance on ‘budget reconciliation’ amid a pandemic, an economic recession and the slimmest congressional majority in decades.”
- On February 26, CNN anchor Poppy Harlow asked former Obama Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro about the Biden administration “pushing through this $1.9 trillion stimulus bill” when “it will not have a single Republican in either chamber supporting it.” Harlow asked Castro if he’s “worried that we're not seeing as much” unity and bipartisanship from Biden “as you had hoped for,” and she concluded the segment by emphasizing that Republicans actually “did lift a finger in terms of making a counterproposal that was not acceptable to the Biden administration.”
- On March 7, NBC host Chuck Todd questioned Biden’s commitment to bipartisanship after the bill passed, given that “he was the guy that was talking about being able to restore some normalcy to Washington.”
- CBS anchor Margaret Brennan asked Gov. Jim Justice (R-WV), one of the few Republican politicians who expressed support for the bill, how he can “justify to your fellow Republican governors and to the rest of the country why this is worth $2 trillion of taxpayer money?”
Suggesting that stimulus bill is too big for an improving economy or fearmongering that it will lead to a higher national debt and inflation
- In a March 5 CNN segment discussing the jobs report, anchor Jim Sciutto asked White House Council of Economic Advisers member Heather Boushey to respond to “folks who say, ‘Listen, things are getting better, this is much money to spend right now.’” When Boushey explained that “we continue to see that we are down more jobs than in the darkest days of the Great Recession,” Sciutto emphasized that “Wall Street [is] already worried about the danger of inflation” and asked her to comment on a situation where the Biden administration “finds itself with an inflation problem by the end of the year.”
- The Washington Post published an article on March 4 titled “As Senate rushes $1.9 trillion bill through Congress, Biden faces doubts over whether it’s still the right package.” The article explained that “for policy experts and even members of Biden’s own party, the improving [economic] picture is raising questions about whether the stimulus bill is mismatched to the needs of the current moment.”
- Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich claimed in a February 26 piece for USA Today that an “overstuffed $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill endangers future growth and prosperity,” fearmongering that “it will drive up deficits so high they'll threaten our national economic wellbeing and response capacity.”
- On March 3, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough interviewed recently retired Washington Post business and economic columnist Steve Pearlstein, whose final column with the paper was a snarky piece lambasting progressive arguments for a large stimulus package. Scarborough detailed the rising national debt figures in recent years before asking, “At some point this madness has to stop, doesn't it?” Pearlstein complained that “liberal Democrats” can’t “tell me where the limit” to spending should be before complaining that “this is a little bit of a Christmas tree bill” and adding, “Wait until you see the next one.”
- On February 23, Scarborough also asked Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to address Summers’ op-ed and “possible inflationary concerns” from “other Democratic economists who also are not voicing those concerns publicly but also share some concerns.”
- USA Today published a February 25 article titled “With the economy healing, is Biden's $1.9T COVID-19 relief package too much?”
- The American Enterprise Institute’s Desmond Lachman published an op-ed in The Hill claiming that “the IMF should not support the Biden stimulus” because of the risks of runaway inflation.
- Discussing the stimulus package on the February 28 edition of MSNBC’s Meet the Press, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens expressed concern about “injecting close to $2 trillion into a growing economy” leading to “inflationary pressures.” Stephens agreed with GOP opposition to the bill and said that “the United States government is like an anaconda that's eating one too many alligators here. There's only so much that we can digest and money that we can pump out in a reasonable span of time.”