With the press’s coverage of the drama surrounding the debt ceiling debate in Washington, much of the public misunderstands the underlying economic realities of the situation. While the usual political fights are playing out in Washington, a growing number of economists, corporate CEOs and those on Wall Street maintain that the solution lies in a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. According to the U.S. News and World Report’s Rick Newman, real economics information is out there – but only if you’re willing to find it.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. As political paralysis in Washington brings the nation ever closer to default, the press has had little trouble covering the brinksmanship over the nation's debt ceiling.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Leaders from both political parties, still struggling to reach a deal to raise the nation's debt ceiling.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:…as a bipartisan deficit reduction deal appears more and more unlikely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here's the prevailing media narrative. The Republicans want the government to live within its means, like ordinary Americans. The Democrats want the wealthy, who enjoy disproportionately low tax rates to pay their fair share.
And Washington is playing a serious game of chicken that the President, as the nation's in loco-parentis-in-chief, seems unable to stop. That's the narrative in which every statement is viewed from the prism of politics.
Here's President Obama, followed by GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann:
PRESIDENT OBAMA:I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven't resolved this issue, because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.
MICHELE BACHMANN: We were all shocked and appalled that President Obama dangled out in front of the cameras that senior citizens may not get their checks. That's a very dangerous statement to make.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The fiscally conservative British news magazine The Economist wrote this week that Republicans are, quote, “Clinging to the position that not a single cent of deficit reduction must come from a higher tax take. This is economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical."
BOB GARFIELD: But The Economistwas unusual in addressing the economic arguments at all. The media's obsession with the debt drama has left many Americans confused about the underlying economic realities.
As U.S. News and World Report's chief business correspondent Rick Newman wrote recently, “Outside the Beltway there is some consensus. Many economists, corporate CEOs and those on Wall Street can agree that the debt ceiling situation needs to be resolved, and quick, with a combination of spending cuts and increased taxation.”
The economic consensus, though, is buried in the drama of the political showdown. The question is if there is so little to debate, why obsess about the debate.
Rick Newman says that all the coverage the public needs is there, if the audience is willing to sift through all the irrelevancies to find it. But the media are once again trapped in the losing proposition of giving equal time and equal respect to all parties.
RICK NEWMAN: If it has a claim to objectivity it has to treat each position with equal credibility. And the way that that's playing out in this debate is over this issue of taxes. Most economic experts or mainstream economists say there is no way to solve this problem without a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.
But the Republicans are digging in their heels and saying no tax increases. And President Obama has basically said he will accept something that is about 75 percent spending cuts and 25 percent tax increases. That is a moderate position, based on the whole range of recommendations we've seen, but the media is struggling with how to re - relate to that. So they have to say Obama, on one hand, and these Republicans, on the other hand. And that's where I think people get pretty confused.
BOB GARFIELD: What if, and this is just a suppose, but what if this is a case, as we have seen in other issues - let's say climate change, for example, where one side is right, the other side is just flatly wrong, but because the situation is so politicized the press can't just categorically say, you know, this side is right? Let's just say what the nation requires right now is a combination of deep spending cuts and modest tax gains. What if reality has a liberal bias?
Is the press capable of dealing with that?
RICK NEWMAN: That is a tough one for the press because the stereotype is the press is liberal and the press tries to prove that it's not. And it does recall the debate about WMD leading up to the Iraq War. And The New York Times and others were criticized for not being tough enough on claims that Iraq had WMD. And there is some likelihood that that the reason they weren't tough is because they didn't want to seem too liberal or too partisan on the liberal side. And we may be in that situation now, specifically with regard to this question of should there be some tax increases to help close the deficit.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible that the press is actually incapable of performing its function of informing its audiences because it would be dismissed as - as simply propagandizing for the President and the Democratic Party?
RICK NEWMAN: There is definitely this sort of journalistic whiplash that reporters get when they – they’re trying so hard to be fair that they feel like maybe they're not giving people the best information or guiding them to the best information.
But I think that if we really do get closer to the blink moment when it does look like we may actually have to start cutting spending by that 40 percent and the borrowing limit may not be raised, I think that's the point at which the press will get a little more diligent about figuring out, okay, who’s real – who do we really fault for this.
But at the moment we are getting this “On the one hand, on the other hand” type of reporting, so the burden is on citizens to remain informed. And it takes a lot of work to stay [LAUGHS] - stay informed about complicated issues like this.
BOB GARFIELD: Rick, thank you.
RICK NEWMAN: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Rick Newman is chief business correspondent for U.S. News and World Report.