Austerity and Objectivity

Why are spending cuts contractionary overseas but not here?

The top story in The Wall Street Journal today is interesting for what it says about how American papers are more willing to call it like they see it when they’re writing outside the U.S.

The piece focuses on new signs of a looming recession in Europe. What’s interesting is how the paper explains why the Eurozone economy is faltering (emphasis mine):

The risk of recession in the euro zone is mounting, according to a closely watched business survey, signalling that a vicious cycle of fiscal austerity and economic contraction threatens even some of Europe’s biggest economies.

A few paragraphs later:

The worsening outlook could force France’s government to make deeper budget cuts to protect its triple-A credit rating, further hurting its economy and adding to doubts about Europe’s ability to pay for bailouts of the euro’s weakest members.

What the Journal is telling us by writing it this way, without attribution, is that it’s an accepted and/or empirical fact (or about as close as economics gets to one) that cutting government spending in a weak economy hurts the economy. And that’s true.

But the political debate, and thus news coverage, in the U.S. over the last couple of years has been disproportionately focused on deficit issues, with jobs (read: spending) on the backburner. If you got the impression, much less saw the direct assertion, from all this coverage that cuts would hurt the economy, then we must not have been reading the same stories.

Just a couple months ago the big issue here was whether the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would deign to raise the government’s debt ceiling. The Journal profiled Michele Bachmann on page one around that time, reporting this:

Ms. Bachmann had said for weeks she would oppose any increase in the borrowing limit, no matter how much budget-cutting might accompany it.

The paper did a good job calling out some of Bachmann’s other false statements, but it left this unhinged position, which is as contractionary as anything being done or even contemplated in Europe, unchallenged.

The Journal wrote 1,800 words on how deficit cuts are likely to affect the middle class, but didn’t mention the contractionary pressures that would put on the economy.

So why does today’s story read so differently than the news stories we saw during the debate over austerity and deep budget cuts (much less whether to fund the government) in the U.S.? Is cutting government spending in Europe somehow contractionary while doing the same in the U.S. is not? I don’t think so.

This isn’t the first time the Journal has pointed to the steep economic downside of budget cuts overseas:

Two years into Greece’s debt crisis, its citizens are reeling from austerity measures imposed to prevent a government debt default that could cause havoc throughout Europe. The economic pain is the price Greece and Europe are paying to defend the euro, the centerpiece of 60 years of efforts to unite the Continent. But as Greece’s economy shrinks, its society is fraying, raising questions about how long Greeks will be able to take the strain.

The objective press sometimes has an easier time telling us how it really is when the subject is overseas and largely removed from domestic political considerations (the biggest exception to this would be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which not coincidentally, is very much a domestic political consideration).

Why is that? Journalists here are often afraid of the bias police when writing (and editing) news stories on hot political issues. The he said-she said tendency is strong, even when it wrongly implies, as it often does, that each side has equal evidence.

So are there other issues that U.S. journalists cover more truthfully overseas than at home?

Well, for one, to our major newspapers, what’s “torture” overseas isn’t always that closer to home. A Harvard study found The New York Times called waterboarding torture 82 percent of the time from 1930 to 2004. After that, when the U.S. became the most famous waterboarder, the Times called it torture 1 percent of the time.

Not so objective, after all.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,