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.
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?
The Democrats have had several programs they’ve sacrificed for the sake of not adding to the deficit. They’ve apparently had to, because they can’t get the votes for it, they can’t get Ben Nelson to vote for it, they can’t get enough Republicans to vote for it. It’s just been remarkable that there are a lot of other big pieces of the federal budget you might look at cutting, but they immediately go to these $7 billion dollar programs, those fall victim to the deficit concern. It’s like the government is schizophrenic about what it wants to do to alleviate the jobs crisis.
Why are they so schizophrenic?
It’s certainly the result of the structure of the Senate; the Senate’s not very democratic, except in its purpose. It could be that people would be less concerned about the deficit if there weren’t an election coming up in the next two months. But we’ll certainly find out after the election happens. Unemployment benefits are up for re-authorization again in November, and it will be interesting to see if people still feel upset about the deficit.
So the deficit hawks are convincingly winning the debate in D.C.?
Absolutely. [Peter G.] Peterson is spending a billion dollars to make sure it happens. I don’t know what effect his campaign has had, but the deficit hawks have won the day. Even though there are people outside of Congress who are deficit hawks, like the Concord Coalition, who thought the whole unemployment benefits thing was ridiculous, and not a good place to practice deficit hawk-ery.
You grew up in Washington. Has working so closely to its power center changed how you think of the city?
I’m twenty-seven, I’ve been doing this for just two years. But I talked to an old lobbyist who worked on the Hill many years ago. He said that after all this time watching people going back and forth between K Street and jobs on the Hill, if he wrote a book about it he would call it, “Perception is reality.” He’s saying that the cynical attitude, that it’s corrupt here and ‘so what?’, is actually the naïve attitude. If you think it’s just totally corrupt, you have the right idea.
You also cover lobbying. What’s your approach to that part of your job?
It started off just going to fundraisers, the rinky-dink boring fundraisers, all the time. We get the invitations from the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time Web site. And it’s just amazing how common they are and yet how offended people are if you write about them.
What were you writing about them?
It would be stuff like, “Look at this Congressman, having a fundraiser, with bank lobbyists… in the middle of a hearing about the financial crisis.” Good grief! Then they tell you, “Well this is the way it’s done; people can’t make it to every hearing.” It’s back to perception being reality, or not.
Do those mentioned in pieces like that come to you directly with feedback?
One time it got out that there were certain fundraisers that were being looked at for a certain story. I had somebody’s chief of staff call me and ask me, please, not to come.
Did you go?
No. It turned out I couldn’t. I went to a different one.