$787 Billion Reasons Why Journalists Love the Stimulus

Dan Gainor

2/12/2010 3:11:48 PM - Dan Gainor

Economists debate the extent President Obama’s mega-stimulus plan has aided the economy. One year after it was signed into law, there is strong question about how much the $787 billion program boosted employment. One thing is certain: it stimulated a great deal of news coverage, and the broadcast networks boosted support for it in turn.

Since Obama signed the bill on Feb. 17, 2009, ABC, CBS and NBC served as unofficial supporters of what NBC called “President Obama’s stimulus cavalry.” The three major evening news shows covered the package on average once every other say. But barely more than half contained any criticism of the largest spending bill in history.

The stimulus might not have created any jobs for journalists, but it certainly created a lot of work for them. It takes a lot of effort to make a $787 billion bill look good. In the case of the big three networks, they did it almost every other day – 172 stories in slightly less than a year.

They weren’t all biased. That would be too easy. They were just overwhelmingly biased. How can one network spend a year covering an issue and end up with more than a 3-to-1 ratio of supporters vs. opponents? Don’t ask me. Ask NBC, which was the worst of the lot in trying to rationalize a spending bill that will end up costing $1.2 trillion when you count in interest.

Obama’s one-size-fits-all solution to the economy was to spend and spend and spend. And keep spending until the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing screamed for mercy.

The media’s one-size-fits-all solution to covering it was to find every single expenditure – large or small – and talk about how it would boost the economy, bring jobs or just ensure the future of democracy.

“It’s the government that’s going to have to pull us out of this recession,” Anthony Mason of CBS “Evening News” told us. If we want to survive the Great Recession we need Uncle Sam and President Obama to take on the economy in an epic tag team match that we all pay to watch.

So viewers didn’t get “news.” They got a tribute to the coolest expenditures. Want to wave the flag and correct a historic injustice? Tune in ABC’s Chris Bury whose April 8 stimulus story talked about paying Filipino veterans money promised them during WW II. Anchor Charles Gibson introduced the segment: “Now, finally, the U.S. government is making a long overdue payment to some of the survivors [of the Bataan Death March.]” I bet you know where the money came from, it was “tucked away in President Obama’s stimulus package.”

What red-blooded American could object to that? Except of course it has nothing to do with stimulus. It’s a bill we should have paid years ago, but got buried in the stimulus bill like thousands of other issues. This wasn’t stimulus so much as a catch-all for infinite government spending.

The stories took on an almost identical template. Whatever your issue or group, the government was there with a helping handout. And journalists were right behind to rationalize it. NBC’s Lisa Myers profiled a new bridge “replacing this crumbling bridge over the Osage River.” Her May 28 story first acknowledged critics who said it was “a bridge to the middle of nowhere.” Then she went for the jugular: “But in struggling Miller County, that $8.5 million bridge means jobs.”

To most taxpayers, a bridge gets you somewhere. It’s not intended as the civilian equivalent of Army make-work jobs where soldiers dig ditches and then fill them up again. The United States has trillions of dollars in crumbling infrastructure journalists constantly tell us. Some of it’s crumbling because it’s non-essential. Let’s fix the stuff that matters.

ABC’s Bill Weir tried the “Buy American” defense for another stimulus plan to buy hybrid buses at $700,000 a piece. “Well, the next time you ride any bus, consider how many sets of American hands went into making it. It comes to life as a steel skeleton at this plant in Riverside, California, but then all the parts that get added on are built in manufacturing plants across the country,” he explained.

When NBC did a story on the opposition to buying excess C-17 military transports they called it pork because the manufacturing was located in many congressional districts. When it’s an eco-friendly bus, it’s “American.” After all, what’s another $115 million among friends … and taxpayers.

In the case of the stimulus bill, that attitude was typical. The same could be said for the media, who ignored criticism of the stimulus in nearly half the stories they did for an entire year.

Pundits often claim democracy is broken because Americans aren’t informed or won’t make the tough decisions. After a year of network news stories covering for instead of covering the biggest spending bill in history, I think I know why.