Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Move Along Folks, Nothing To See Here

The 24-hour news cycle is bad for a lot of reasons – it lacks context, encourages lowest common denominator reporting, and sometimes needs correction after-the-fact because the need to be right is often sacrificed at the altar of being first. Twain’s axiom that “a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on” is truer today than ever, but several stories that consumed the Beltway media in the past year when each was deemed a “crisis” were so lightly reported in follow-up as to make one wonder whether reporters in Washington simply root for failure.

You might remember the budget deficit and the economy consuming enormous swaths of real estate on the pages of major newspapers and the airwaves of cable television a while back. The former was a millstone hanging around the President’s neck, with Republicans darkly warning of a dystopian future if Social Security (fully funded until beyond 2030) and Medicare (solvent through the mid-2020s) were not tinkered with. Meanwhile, the steady drumbeat of pabulum from Speaker John Boehner – “where are the jobs” – was uncritically repeated by a media far more interested in Washington food fights than analyzing our country’s economic recovery.

So, what happened? Why aren’t we hearing more about either the budget deficit or the economy? Sadly, it appears that the answer is “because both are doing well.” I know, it is odd to think that media types would not be interested in reporting good news, but it is hard to conclude otherwise. Consider the fact that the budget deficit is predicted to be roughly 3% of our nation’s GDP at the end of the federal government’s fiscal year on September 30th. This is well in line with what most economists think is acceptable and is an enormous reduction in total dollars from the depths of the Great Recession; however, you would be hard pressed to find much coverage of this fact and certainly far less than the “sky is falling” attitudes expressed by many conventional journalists when a “grand bargain” was seen as the only solution to our fiscal woes.

As for the economy, it just recorded the sixth straight month of creating more than 200,000 jobs; the first time this has happened since 1997. Moreover, private sector job growth has expanded for more than 4 years straight, the unemployment rate is hovering just above 6%, and would be even lower if states had not laid off so many public sector workers to balance their books. But again, <crickets> from the media, who were otherwise consumed last Friday with the fact that the President used the word “folks” when confirming what everyone knew – that America tortured people after 9/11.

Remember, Obamacare? How could you not. For the better part of four years, from the town hall astro-turf melees to Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” the media gleefully reported on attempts by Republicans to deny their fellow Americans access to what is considered a basic human right in every other advanced nation in the world – quality and affordable medical treatment. Good times. After the law was passed and upheld by the Supreme Court, the coverage shifted to the creation of exchanges where insurance plans could be purchased. You might remember that too – the federal exchange got off to a rocky start, but quickly righted itself (like literally, in the span of about 6 weeks it was working perfectly – another thing the media failed to report on). Ultimately, more than 8 million people registered for “Obamacare,” which ended up being more than were initially predicted before the “glitch” problems on healthcare.gov.

You would be surprised to learn how effective Obamacare has been because what coverage the media still provides is (shocker!) negative – a rogue appeals panel that held subsidies were limited to those states that set up their own exchanges (another appeals court found the opposite, but again, got much less coverage) and polling that shows the law’s overall unpopularity (never mind that the component parts always poll well and some who are unhappy with the law think it should go further). In deep blue California, premiums are only going to rise 4.5% next year, well below the double-digit inflation that used to occur in the system, and hundreds of thousands of people in blood red Kentucky signed up for health insurance for the first time. Further, instead of creating a predicted insurance “death spiral,” reports indicate that young, healthy Americans are signing up and insurance companies are battling to enter more markets. But why would the media want you to know about that? Also of little interest to most in Washington is the fact that Medicare costs are dropping, due in part to the Affordable Care Act, which has the added benefit of extending the life of the program (something everyone was also up in arms about just a year or so ago).

And finally, who can forget Benghazi? You know, an incident the right-wing media portrayed as worse than 9/11, that would be the downfall of Hillary Clinton’s nascent Presidential run and proved, once and for all that Obama was really a feckless leader who refused to save helpless Americans in Libya. Benghazi got plenty of coverage in the darker corners of conservative talk radio and the blogosphere from the day it happened, but more recently, the media was all over the creation of a (rare) “special” committee in the House of Representatives to “investigate” the matter further. All of this sturm und drang (with little substantiation) served to drop Hillary’s poll numbers and gin up the type of hysteria that was once reserved for Dan Burton doing tests of bullet trajectories on melons (google that one if you don’t get the reference).

But on the same day the media was ignoring the strong July job numbers it was REALLY ignoring a story written by Carolyn Lochhead of the San Francisco Chronicle about a soon-to-be declassified report by the House Intelligence Committee (yes, run by a Republican!) that will debunk, refute and otherwise reject all of the wild-eyed conspiracy theories that were generated in the murky pools of right-wing media and leaked into our public discourse. Seriously, her reporting generated NO follow-up for several days and when MSNBC finally picked it up, most of us who use social media could only shake our heads at the veritable eternity it took for anyone in “journalism,” who had shamelessly taken advantage of a terrible tragedy to advance bogus talking points, to clue the world into this latest destruction of a cherished right wing myth.

And so it goes. This is not to say NO reporting is being done on these subjects, it is the utter lack of proportionality given the negative versus the positive (or in the case of Benghazi, the truthful versus the false) that should shame and embarrass those who report the news. When Chuck Todd bemoans voter cynicism he points to a truth largely created by him and his journalistic ilk who have decided its raison d’être is conflict not context, specious over substance, and optics above all else. We deserve better.

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