Do many stories come from correspondence you receive via e-mail?
It’s more that stories will have a person who e-mails me in them. A person may e-mail me and then I will get in touch with them, check their backgrounds, find out more about their circumstances, and that person may be quoted as someone who is affected by what is going on. But it’s not that usual for a person to generate his or her own story.
How do you encourage people to approach you as potential sources?
Every so often we put what we call an “ask” in the copy of a story, in the top part, saying, “HuffPo readers, is this affecting you? E-mail Arthur.” For one of those unemployment stories I got more than 200 e-mails in two days. It never stopped until the Senate re-authorized the benefits and people got notice from their state agencies.
How helpful is it to have that direct channel to sources?
It’s absolutely helpful. It’s a different kind of thing on this beat, though; there would be no way for 200 of the people I was writing about on the police beat to all e-mail me at once. It doesn’t even make sense to talk about that happening for those kinds of stories. You know, when somebody is a snitch who hasn’t been paid by the police department, you can’t say, “Hey snitches, you got a problem getting paid? E-mail us.”
What are two or three of the biggest unemployment stories you’ve covered since the recession began?
It’s been one big story, really. I talk about Congress not reauthorizing benefits, and it’s been a controversy since December; they’ve let it lapse three times. I would look at this all as one big developing story. And part of one individual report will be used in the next. It’s like chain-smoking. For instance, I got the House this spring to send me a document laying out whether the Congress has used offsets or pay-fors during previous extensions. And then in every story that talks about the controversy—because that’s what it was, are we going to pay for this?—I’d say, historically here’s what they’ve done, and link back to that story. It’s like building one big story.
Is that a benefit of doing stories online?
It’s a benefit of being at the Huffington Post. I have the flexibility to do it that way.
Do you think the story’s going to change? Or will there be more lapses down the line?
In the short term, the same thing is going to happen in November, because the current reauthorization will happen then. It will be an interesting dynamic. How much progress will the workforce have made? Whether the economy has added jobs by then will factor in. The election will be over. Will people’s deficit hysteria be lessened by that? It will be really fun to see, that’s why we’re looking forward to it.
What are some of the pitfalls in reporting that you have to consciously avoid?
When you’re dealing with hundreds of people e-mailing you, you don’t want to be led astray by somebody whose circumstances are wildly different from how they describe them. There are ways to avoid it. You talk to people and you get a sense if they’re crazy; it doesn’t take a long time to find out. Or, if they’re lying, there are public records you can check. But usually people aren’t lying. People are who they say they are.
Just how important will unemployment be in the midterms?
Extremely, and for good reasons. Whether it’s Obama’s fault or not is the trickier question. If you listen to the Republicans and take what they say at face value, you would of course think it’s Obama’s fault. But that would be a stupid way to form your opinion. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
Where do you see the rate headed?
I don’t have my own way of predicting what it will do, but there is this really broad consensus that it’s going to stay above nine percent. I think Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said yesterday, referring to a vote happening today in the Senate, “If they don’t approve this federal medical assistance money, than I’m going to go and initiate the process of firing thousands of people.” There are many different bills being moved through Congress right now that have potentially had the consequence of forcing state governments to lay people off. I think those will continuously pop up for a while.
Has Congress worked out a way of consistently dealing with them?