Leslie Savan blogs for The Nation about media and politics.
Right before a break on The Daily Rundown the other day, host Chuck Todd was talking about the debt deal and mentioned "unemployment lines." Then he announced, "Coming up: Did Washington take its eye off the ball of what really matters?"
For one naïve moment, I expected that "what really matters" would entail the debt deal's effect on actual people, maybe even a sound bite or two from someone who depends on the newly threatened Medicare coverage or unemployment benefits (Congress's "compromise" failed to extend federal emergency jobless benefits).
Instead, Todd returned to talk with two Washington journalists on what the deal means to the larger economy. A necessary discussion, for sure, but like most TV politi-chat these days, it didn't touch on how "the deal savages programs for the lower and middle classes," as my colleague George Zornick put it in a post that breaks down the likely effects on veterans, students, seniors, the poor, and the unemployed. This Nation slideshow illustrates what most MSM avert their eyes to.
You can't really expect much from the dank Beltway dome where the press and politicians inhale each others' hot air; this week, the endless speculation was over how the debt battle will tilt the political fortunes of Obama, Boehner, Mitch, Mitt, et al. I enjoy a good who's-up/who's-down game as much as anyone. But I'd have been much more satisfied with, say, three parts political-process talk to one part real-life talk--something like that meager 3-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax revenue that Obama and many Dems held up as the "balanced" way to succumb to rightwing extortion. But, alas, in both the corporate media and in Congress, the vaguely progressive part never quite materialized.
Later in his show, Todd told a new set of panelists, "I want to go a little bit into the politics of this." Just a little bit. At one point, his voice alight with the political chase, Todd talked up a poll showing Romney beating Obama (by two points) in Pennsylvania."If Pennsylvania's really in play in October of 2012," he said, "it's already over!"
I don't mean to single out Chuck. He simply represents the broader media's bedazzlement with the horserace, beside which ordinary people and their depressing problems seem to disappear, especially if they're poor. Oh, the network news will eventually give us some vivid profiles of debt-deal victims. But over the last few weeks, when an onslaught of such stories could have possibly influenced legislation, they were nowhere to be seen. On Morning Joe last week, Sam Stein had to repeatedly cajole Joe Scarborough in order to squeeze in a few words about just this media deficit. "The point is," Stein said, "people's lives, their livelihoods are at stake if we actually default.... I think that's something that's been totally absent from the debate."
Political-process punditry is nothing new; it's always been far easier and more fun than reporting on people in pain. And in a crisis, real or fake, when the adrenalin's flowing, it's especially tempting to play talking-point ping pong till you're too numb to imagine that anyone might really get hurt.
The fake crisis over the deficit that led to the debt deal is, nauseatingly, like the fake crisis that led to the invasion of Iraq. (Which, along with the Bush tax cuts, created the deficit that created the GOP's latest excuse to invade Social Security, Medicare, and more.)
In the lead up to the war, the press fell for the lies about weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds. This time, the media fell for the Republicans', the rating agencies', and Obama's argument that the deficit itself a mushroom cloud and that if we don't rout out our "spending problem" like so many WMD, it's ka-boom for us all.
Even as a congressional "super committee" lines up to slash more spending, the media are repeating their decade-old mistake: They're giving as little air time to economists' warnings that spending, not austerity, is the way out of a recession as they gave to UN weapons inspectors' warnings that there were no WMD.
Coming up: the mainstream media's ever-so-mild self-criticism for, again, ignoring real suffering and letting Republicans set the terms of the debate.
It may take weeks or years, but one day they'll wonder, "Did we take our eyes off the ball of what really matters?"