The Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney is becoming a prominent voice on the unemployment debate consuming the Capitol. Referred to by his boss, Arianna Huffington, as the site’s “Economic Impact Correspondent,” Delaney has reported extensively on arguments over the extension of unemployment benefits, the movement of related bills through Congress, and the political machinations of D.C., the city in which he was born, raised, and educated. With a new batch of unemployment figures coming out this Friday, CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke to Delaney about his approach to covering what many say is the nation’s most important problem. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What was your task when you were brought on to the Huffington Post?
Pretty much from the get-go Arianna wanted me to be writing about the human suffering. She calls me the “Economic Impact Correspondent.” We had a phone interview and she looked at my Washington City Paper clips. She had followed the stories about the downtrodden. So she wanted me to continue that with an eye toward the macro-economic stuff that’s happening.
What kind of reporting were you doing on the “downtrodden”?
I started out writing about the police [at Washington City Paper]. And my first story was on the Capitol police, who had secretly set up surveillance cameras all through the neighborhood. I had a tip and I knew a bunch of lawyers around here, and UDC (University of the District of Columbia) lawyers, who dealt with low-income clients who have problems with police or other agencies. So I wound up with a lot of clips that had the downtrodden.
What is your approach to covering unemployment now it’s your beat at the HuffPost?
Because I had been writing about actual unemployed people, I was coming to it from their perspective. There are a lot of unemployed people who have been e-mailing me, and who are on forums online that I’ve also written about, where they sort of pool resources and information. Writing about it from their perspective is really a matter of just getting the information to them about what’s happening. I try to write about it without an eye toward how it affected Obama. A lot of people who wrote about said that this is weighing Obama down, or that it’s a test of Obama’s stimulus agenda.
You’ve focused a lot on the ongoing story of extending unemployment benefits in Congress. Why the draw to that part of the story?
I would say I was very forthright in my reports with the fact that I thought it was sort of amazing that it happened the way it did; it was amazing that there were millions of people having their benefits interrupted for more than a month. It seemed to me that it ought to be written about like it was urgent.
How have other journalists communicated that urgency?
That’s a tricky question. I think when other people write about it, and they have the numbers from the Labor Department and they use those numbers to explain how many people are affected, the urgency is automatically communicated. But even though stuff is happening every single day, not a lot of people—beyond the folks who would have covered it because they have to cover the Hill—pay much attention.
Unemployment figures are hitting this Friday. When figures are released, what do you look for, and what do you think others should look for?
For the past six months or year I have looked at the long-term unemployment, which is the most unique part of this recession. We’ve never had this sort of long-term unemployment. But I would not say that AP doesn’t look at it; I think the AP does a very good job pointing out the unemployment numbers. I don’t try to compete with them doing the write-up.
The politicians are the ones who can spin it. The last two reports have had gains, but for bad reasons, because people stopped looking for work. Whichever side you’re on, you can have it your way. But I don’t think the press is led astray very often.
What other aspects of the reports do you home in on?
On the Fridays when the numbers come out, the consensus develops about the report and then I talk to people who have a more specialized focus on the long term or on older folks.
Why the focus on older folks?
People in that age group constantly e-mail me and talk about age discrimination when they try to find jobs. The AARP does its own analysis with labor data about what is the long-term percentage for people older than fifty-five. It’s a higher percentage than the rest of the population, even though there are fewer older folks who are unemployed.