President Obama's stimulus bill is a failure. President Obama's stimulus bill saved the economy. President Obama's stimulus bill was a waste of taxpayer money. President Obama's stimulus bill created thousands of jobs and saved thousands of others that would otherwise have been lost.
Back and forth, back and forth. No wonder the public is so sick of politicians. No wonder trust in the media is at an all-time low. Who wants to hear people bickering all the time, let alone read about it in the paper or hear it on the news - especially when the country is enduring such difficult times?
The media obsession with conflict and argument is further damaging an already atrocious public discourse about the most important issues facing the nation.
Quoting two opposing opinions on an issue is not news. Presenting one claim alongside a counter-claim without any factual basis or context is not being a responsible journalist. It is being a glorified gossip columnist. The claims might be part of a larger story, but they are not, nor should they be, the story.
Yet time and time again, the media emphasize the disputes and disagreements among contending parties rather than simply report facts that would illuminate and clarify the issue in question.
By focusing so much of their coverage on the disputes surrounding the facts, rather than on the facts themselves, journalists end up obscuring the very issues they are trying to report on. Worse still, they perpetuate and amplify a cultural and political environment in which facts are rendered meaningless because they are simply buried in an avalanche of competing "assertions." Assertions are not facts.
All the recent hoo-hah over the one-year anniversary of the Economic Recovery Act is a perfect illustration of how the media is failing to do its job.
This New York Times headline is a good example:
The headline alone implicitly calls into question any claims that Obama might make about the stimulus bill by framing them as an attempt to "Cast Stimulus Bill as a Success."
Then the lead paragraph focuses not on facts, but on the competing claims.
President Obama defended his year-old economic stimulus package on Wednesday, as Republicans and Democrats took to the Internet and the airwaves to wage a furious partisan battle over whether the bill was a monumental waste of taxpayer money or had rescued the economy from catastrophe.
How is this helpful? Do we really need this reporter to tell us that a "furious partisan battle" is being waged? There is absolutely nothing "newsworthy" or enlightening about that lead.
At the beginning of paragraph three, the reporter throws us a bone of objective analysis.
There is little dispute among economists that the measure has kept the jobless rate from being even higher than it is.
But the remainder of the paragraph and indeed the succeeding six paragraphs focus on Obama's "sales pitch" and the counter-arguments of the Republican leadership.
It is not until paragraph eight that a serious, objective opinion appears that might be useful to a reader looking for real information.
Economists say that Mr. Obama and the Republicans are both, in a sense, correct. The economy has indeed lost jobs on Mr. Obama’s watch, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently calculated that the recovery package, formally called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, had saved or created between 900,000 and 2.3 million jobs.
If the public is trying to make a judgment about the effectiveness of a disputed piece of legislation, a judgement that is possibly going to affect how they vote in the next election, which, if multiplied by millions, will undoubtedly affect the outcome of that election, how is it helpful to focus so much of the story on partisan claims and counter-claims and so little on objective analysis?
The People need facts! They need graphs! They need tables! They need something resembling an objective source of information!
USA Today, the most widely-read, plain-vanilla newspaper in the country, did a better job reporting this story than the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, CNN and most other major outlets.
Here's what they said:
President Obama's stimulus package saved jobs — but the government still needs to do more to breathe life into the economy, according to USA TODAY's quarterly survey of 50 economists.
Now there's something a reader might trust: a survey of 50 economists. There were some disagreements detailed in the rest of the article, but there were no outrageous quotes from John Boehner or Eric Cantor or Robert Gibbs.
Just a newspaper trying to give the public some factual information on which to base their opinions about the current administration's economic stimulus package and, by extension, their future voting decisions. How quaint.
Reuters added something even more substantive to the day's news: facts
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law one of the largest packages of tax cuts and spending measures in U.S. history. The two-year American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama said would create or save more than 3 million jobs, was originally estimated to cost the federal government $787 billion.
A year later and halfway through the plan's implementation, Americans are weighing the recovery act's impact on a stubbornly high unemployment rate and the longest and deepest economic recession in nearly 80 years.
Here are some facts:- So far, $179 billion in the plan has been spent and $93 billion in tax cuts have been issued. Another $154 billion is in the process of being sent out, and $247 billion is left to spend. The remainder comes in tax cuts yet to be granted. - The Congressional Budget Office revised its cost estimate for the recovery act up to $862 billion from $787 billion last month. - More than $8 billion from the plan has been spent on increased food stamps, as the assistance program for the hungry recently reached a record enrollment of 38 million people. - By the end of December, the Department of Transportation approved 10,000 highway projects. Of the $34.1 billion the department has made available to states, it has only paid out $8.63 billion. - The plan increased unemployment benefit payments and extended extra payments for those who could not find work when their regular benefits were exhausted through the end of 2009. Recently, Congress pushed the expiration date of both programs to February 28. - Nearly $280 billion of the spending will be directed through state governments, including a $48 billion stabilization fund to help states balance their budgets. - According to figures provided by those who received grants and loans from the plan, 595,263 jobs were created or saved by the plan in the final three months of 2009. A previous report, which had used a different method of calculation, said it had saved 640,239 jobs in the prior quarter. - The White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated there would have been 1.5 million to 2 million fewer jobs in 2009 if not for the stimulus funds. - In January, the U.S. employment rate stood at 9.7 percent. A year earlier, when Congress was negotiating the stimulus plan, it had just reached 7.7 percent. - In the fourth quarter of 2009 U.S. gross domestic product grew 5.7 percent, with two quarters of growth bringing hope that the economy was pulling out of recession.
Sources: USDA, www.recovery.gov, ProPublica, U.S. Census, Labor Department, Congressional Budget Office
Imagine that! They laid out some facts for readers to think about. How old-fashioned!
Now, if you put those two stories together, you might be surprised to read this:
Now how could that be? If these two news sources can print facts that strongly indicate the stimulus bill has been relatively successful, if imperfect, how is it that only 6% of Americans see it that way?
Here's precisely why, from an assortment of widely-read publications:
In the first year of the trillion-dollar stimulus, Americans have lost millions of jobs, the unemployment rate continues to hover near 10%, the deficit continues to soar and we're inundated with stories of waste, fraud and abuse," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "This was not the plan Americans asked for or the results they were promised.
The Republican National Committee posted a Web video aimed at Mr. Obama titled “Broken Promises,” and the House Republican leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, issued a report titled “Where are the Jobs? A Look Back at One Year of So-called ‘Stimulus.’ ”
“In the year since the Democrats’ ‘stimulus’ program was enacted, over 3 million jobs have been lost, billions of dollars have been wasted, and an unprecedented debt has been passed on to our children – these are not the results that America hoped for,” Cantor said.
Later in the day, Cantor's office put out a memo directed to the White House press office, saying: "We enjoyed watching your press briefing today as you celebrated the 'success' of your failed $862 billion stimulus program. While we commend you on the diversionary tactics that you attempted to deploy, the fact remains that your stimulus program has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on pork, passed on tremendous debt to young Americans who will be forced to pay your tab, and has utterly failed to get Americans back to work in any meaningful way.
Newly-sworn Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown says the last economic stimulus bill did not create even one new job, a claim that most economists would dispute.
Brown made the assertion moments after he was sworn in Thursday by Vice President Joe Biden to the seat held for nearly half a century by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Convening his first news conference, Brown said the last economic stimulus bill didn't create a single new job. He added that it may have retained some jobs, but didn't create any new ones.
Republicans have questioned the way President Barack Obama's administration has counted jobs created or saved with stimulus money. But most economists believe new jobs were created even though unemployment rates rose.
What's the public to make of all this? Who are they supposed to believe? Scott Brown? Eric Cantor? A bunch of unknown economists?
Writer and blogger Ilya Somin, of the Cato Institute, has some thoughts on this in his research paper titled "Rational Ignorance."
For decades, scholars have recognized that most citizens have little or no political knowledge,and that it is in fact rational for the average voter to make little or no effort to acquire political information. Rational ignorance is fully compatible with the so-called “paradox of voting” because it will often be rational for citizens to vote, but irrational for them to become well-informed.
Furthermore, rational ignorance leads not only to inadequate acquisition of political information, but also to ineffective use of the information that citizens do possess. The combination of these two problems has fundamental implications for a variety of issues in public policy and international affairs.
The theory of rational ignorance implies not only that voters will acquire little or no political knowledge,but also that they will make little effort to use the knowledge they do have in a consistent and effective manner. It is not just that they might be apathetic; far worse, they sometimes use their knowledge in a way that increases the danger of making serious errors.
...people tend to use new information to reinforce their preexisting views on political issues, while discounting evidence that runs counter to them (e.g.,Lord, et al;Taber and Lodge).
Although some scholars view such bias as potentially irrational behavior (Taber and Lodge),it is perfectly rational if the goal is not to get at the “truth” of a given issue in order to be a better voter, but to enjoy the psychic beneﬁts of being a political “fan.” Rationally ignorant voters may limit not only the amount of information they acquire but also “how rationally they process the information they do have”.
To put it a different way, such citizens’ mode of processing information may be rational for purposes of psychic gratiﬁcation, but irrational for purposes of improving the quality of their votes.
There is much else in Mr. Somin's writings that is (in my opinion) utter nonsense, but the thesis he lays out here is fascinating. If he is right, then the media has an even more powerful obligation to provide the public with factual reporting, not regurgitated assertions from one party or another.
If it is true that people are already predisposed to use information in a way that gives them "psychic gratification," then the media is making the problem worse by emphasizing conflict over fact, opinion over data, and amplifying everything until the noise is so deafening that people simply tune out.
This is an election year. The media needs to do its job. Very few people are going to surf over to FactCheck.org nine times a day. Every media outlet needs to recommit itself to its mission of reporting facts and data. It's not sexy, but it's what is needed.
As far as the stimulus package is concerned, the following is what I choose to believe. It gives me the most psychic gratification.
Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Economy.com. They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative...
If you have a different opinion, I'd like to hear it. Just don't try to tell me it's news.
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