Balanced Budget, “Balanced” Coverage

Los Angeles Times scrutinizes Obama's economic proposals, gives McCain a pass

The political press’s nasty habit of reporting the debate instead of the issues being debated cropped up again today in the wake of John McCain’s pledge to balance the federal budget within four years.

An article by Maeve Reston and Louise Roug in this morning’s Los Angeles Times is the latest to follow the same familiar formula: McCain has a plan. Plan is murky. McCain bashes Obama. McCain bashes the Bush administration. Obama bashes McCain. Obama has a plan. Obama’s plan is also murky.

All clear?

We (and plenty of others) have written extensively on the media’s reluctance to get beyond the he-said/he-said campaign coverage formula. The horserace is an important piece of the campaign and must be covered, of course, but it shouldn’t be the centerpiece of the coverage. Certainly, there is a distinct line between reportage and analysis. But, in the case of the LAT story, the lack of analysis translates into superficial reporting. As a reader, I wanted to know more about whether and how McCain’s plan would work; I wanted to know whether the budget could actually be balanced; I didn’t want to have to go elsewhere for that information.

Granted, the reporters observed that the balanced-budget pledge was restored “without explanation,” and noted that, given his love for tax cuts, it’s unclear whether McCain would be able to balance the budget in eight years, let alone four. But these are wispy bits of context; and the analysis ends there. The story doesn’t mention the implausibility of limiting federal spending to 2.4 percent growth per year, given its average 6 percent growth rate over the last five years; nor does it mention the implausibility of convincing Congress to observe a one-year spending freeze.

The easy response here is that the Reston/Roug story is just a simple campaign trail story, and that further analysis can (and hopefully will) be deployed in future articles. I understand that mindset (today, report what’s said; tomorrow, find out if it’s true), but I disagree with it. For one thing, the find-out-if-it’s-true part often goes wanting, and if it doesn’t become part of the daily press narrative, that crucial context is unlikely to stick with all but the most conscientious readers.

Ideally, there should be a certain measure of analysis in all campaign stories. Practically, it ain’t easy. Modern beat reporters often face absurd expectations. Demand for online content means that they are expected to file stories throughout the day; no matter what any editor officially says, reporters are expected to match their competition on their daily stories. It is this vicious cycle from which journalism cannot break free—the pack instinct, the need to report what others are reporting, even though we all say that things shouldn’t have to be like that. In 2004, we proposed that newspapers form ad hoc newsroom teams (or more formal teams, if possible) to supplement reporters’ on-the-trail stories with context and analysis. Last month, Zachary Roth proposed that newspapers send policy experts to cover campaign events, instead of (or in addition to) political experts.

Both of these remain good ideas; until (if ever) they are widely instituted, newspapers simply have to start doing a better job with what they’ve got. Analysis-based reporting is difficult, sure, but it can be done: all of the objections I cited above come from this morning’s New York Times article on McCain’s proposal.

Here’s what we get from the LAT:

“The choice in this election is stark and simple,” McCain said. “Sen. Obama will raise your taxes. I won’t. I will cut them where I can. Jobs are the most important thing our economy creates. When you raise taxes in a bad economy you eliminate jobs. I’m not going to let that happen.”

But lowering taxes in a bad economy does not automatically create jobs, either. Framing economic policy proposals as simple either-or propositions—or, rather, allowing the candidates to frame them that way—leaves no room for nuance or debate, and misses a significant opportunity to actually help readers understand what is real and what is rhetoric.

The LAT’s editorial choices here are particularly surprising, as today’s LAT also features a comprehensive story on the implausibility of some of Obama’s economic proposals. Peter Nicholas writes:

Budget analysts are skeptical that Obama’s agenda could survive in the face of large federal budget deficits and the difficulty of making good on his plan to raise new revenues by closing tax loopholes, ending the Iraq war and cutting low-priority spending….

“I accept that all candidates throw out a lot of proposals when they’re campaigning,” [Clinton-era chief of staff Leon] Panetta said. “You have to assume that’s all part of a campaign strategy to appeal to a lot of different constituencies that are out there. But once he enters the Oval Office, he’s going to have to make some hard decisions.”

In the manner of the best campaign stories, Nicholas’s article analyzes Obama’s campaign promises in terms of their feasibility, in order to separate rhetoric from reality and to empower readers to vote based on facts rather than fictions.

Reporting on the actual campaign proposals—rather than the rhetoric surrounding those proposals—is the best way for reporters to get beyond the calcified he-said/he-said notion of objectivity that has made such a mess of reporting in this country. Objectivity to facts—to the broader reality that surrounds political rhetoric—trumps the predictable tick-tock of a campaign.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.