Memo to the media: Where's W?

So how did we get to this point? Job losses in the hundreds of thousands every month, almost weekly bank failures, and 401(k)s at half their value from a year and a half ago. The media treat the question as a mystery that can be solved through scrutiny of the Obama administration's actions starting on January 20, 2009 -- an approach that is absurd on its face. The media's erasure of the Bush administration and its policies in their coverage of the economy has been so pervasive that they have given round-the-clock attention to the AIG bonus scandal for days on end with virtually no mention of the fact that it was the Bush administration that last fall approved billions of dollars in aid to AIG without requiring the company to nullify its bonus contracts.

Indeed, last week's coverage of the AIG scandal exemplified the media's amnesia toward the Bush administration. Notwithstanding the Bush administration's critical role in the process by which AIG received its bailout money and AIG employees received their bonuses, the media advanced the false Republican claim that Democrats created the bonuses in the stimulus bill that Congress passed and President Obama signed in February. Fox News took its erasure of the Bush Treasury Department to an even greater extreme, downplaying a major scoop by its sister news organization Fox Business Network, which obtained emails from early November showing Bush Treasury Department officials grappling with the issue of AIG bonuses. In a report on Fox Business' finding, Fox News host Jon Scott and correspondent Brian Wilson did not at any point explain that their colleagues' discovery of the emails is significant because they show that the Bush Treasury Department considered -- and rejected -- requiring AIG to nullify its bonus contracts as a condition of receiving $40 billion in bailout money in November.

Coverage of the AIG bonus scandal is merely the latest example of the media's disappearance of the Bush administration in their reporting on economic issues, which has completely disregarded the effect of the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy, its deficit spending, and its aggressively hands-off approach toward the market and financial institutions. On a range of issues, the press has left out relevant information about the role of Bush-era policies or suggested that Obama has greater responsibility for policies or events than he does. Journalists and media figures began referring to the "Obama bear market" during an 18 percent slide in the Dow Jones industrial average after his inauguration, despite having rarely referred to a “Bush bear market” during the first bear market of his presidency and never during the second. Moreover, references to the “Obama bear market” are rarely accompanied by an analysis of factors that arose during the Bush administration that continue to affect the market today. A Bloomberg article about the loss of household net worth in 2008 -- when Bush was president -- did not even mention the previous administration, and a CNN correspondent falsely suggested this drop happened in part during the Obama administration. Stories and television commentary on soaring foreclosure rates almost invariably leave out the fact that an emphasis on increasing homeownership was a key part of Bush's domestic economic agenda and that he personally pushed through policies to make it easier for people to obtain mortgages with no money down.

Through tax cuts and massive borrowing, the Bush administration presided over the creation of an enormous deficit that now presents a major drag on the enactment of policies to turn around the economy. As economist Dean Baker pointed out, most of the 2009 deficit is attributable to Bush-era policies, according to projections from the Congressional Budget Office. But even in stories that specifically address the budget deficit, the Bush administration is often absent.

Beyond erasing the Bush administration from the picture, the media have also taken to criticizing Obama for attempting to remind them of who governed the country in the two previous presidential terms. In a March 14 article, Washington Post staff writer Scott Wilson characterized President Obama's assertions that he had inherited the current economic situation from his predecessor as “recriminations.” Rather than attempting to assess the accuracy of Obama's claims or determine what policies and factors led to the current crisis, Wilson described Obama's “frequent and acid reminders” as a part of his strategy of “partisan defense.”

The media's refusal to involve the Bush administration in any of a wide array of stories about the economy deprives their consumers of the very analysis of policies that would help them understand and evaluate proposals to address the crisis. Regardless of one's assessment of the Obama administration's handling of the economy so far -- and the administration has its share of critics from across the ideological spectrum -- to erase the Bush administration from the picture is to deny the public and history a real understanding of how the country got to its perilous economic position. The consequences of that denial could be catastrophic -- an absence of public support for genuine solutions and, worse, the fomenting of public demand for the reinstitution or expansion of the deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy that many economists say led to the recession in which the country now finds itself.

The Obama administration inherited a massive deficit, high and rising unemployment, a massive bailout-in-process of the major financial institutions, and a high rate of mortgage foreclosures. The current economic and financial crises are not random acts of nature, unpredictable and unpreventable, but are consequences, at least in part, of policy decisions made during the previous administration. George W. Bush was president for eight years and did not leave office until January 20, 2009. Policies carried out during his tenure had lasting consequences. Press coverage should always reflect this reality.