We’re past the one-year marks of the financial crisis and the $700 billion bailout; next up, in February: the stimulus plan’s first birthday. These dubious anniversaries have sparked their share of retrospective coverage, book releases, and much editorializing. (And at least one multimedia graphic where you can see which members of the “Lehman diaspora” are now making it rain at UBS, Citigroup and elsewhere.)
The banking bloodbath and government efforts to combat it got quite a bit of newsprint in the days and weeks after they were announced, of course. But we have a sneaking suspicion that now is not the time for press watchdogs to call off the chase. What other stories about this historic spate of federal assistance still need to be told? And what resources on the bailout and stimulus plan are actually useful in divining new stories from the available data?
In a specially commissioned study, The Audit here takes a look at online resources tracking the bailout and stimulus money, from government web sites to independently run operations. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s pretty good. No need to thank us. It’s what we do.
This is a continuation of CJR’s coverage of the coverage of the bailout and stimulus programs. Previously, on the subject we’ve tackled perplexing coverage of Goldman Sachs; FOIA battles; and what else the press
should and could be doing in terms of financial coverage, just to name a few things.
Ready? Let’s begin.
To Stimulate Coverage, a Refresher:
The federal government has taken significant measures to intervene in the economy as a part of its efforts to improve the economic situation, first bailing out the financial sector in October last year. The government then passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February, which will introduce $787 billion into the economy over the next several years— $288 billion in tax breaks, $280 billion allocated to states and localities, and $219 billion in federal spending.
In general, finding sources on the stimulus and the bailout isn’t hard, but navigating them can be, because many provide the same information in different formats. For instance, SubsidyScope, ProPublica, The New York Times, and the Center for Public Integrity all provide data and resources on the Treasury’s bailout activities and TARP spending, but each uses a different approach and somewhat different information to build their resources. So, it’s important for journalists who use these sources to understand what they include, and just as importantly, what they exclude. We’ll help with that below. And while differing information about the same subject is one problem, coverage of other subjects suffer from too little information. Coverage of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC is largely superficial, for instance, because the agencies haven’t released information necessary for deeper coverage.
And while getting bailout information has its challenges, there are even fewer and less comprehensive sources on the stimulus. Stimulus funds are hard to track because they’re disbursed in a variety of ways—some by individual federal contracts or grants, others in block grants to the states. Only the first two tiers of recipients (the contractor and subcontractor, for instance, but not subs to subs) are required to report to the federal government. But there is a now standardized formula on Recovery.gov from which to calculate these stimulus numbers. The tiered allocation system as well as the limited reporting requirements make tracking stimulus spending a surprisingly difficult task, even at this late date.
State stimulus tracker sites often provide details about local projects that have been approved and proposed. Trouble is, there’s no uniform format for reporting at the state level, and states frequently re-classify projects after they’re already in the pipeline.(e.g. a single project may split into two sequential projects to apply for different grants). Also, state sites often don’t specify which projects have already been approved and which are merely proposed. In this case, sites
like Recovery.org, which that aggregate information from local news reports are quite useful. (UPDATE: Link removed because the domain name changed ownership.)
Finding these tracking sites, much less figuring out which ones are most useful, can be tricky. For a quick run-through of what’s out there, ProPublica has this handy chart, recently updated.
Coverage of tax breaks included in the stimulus, which account for roughly one third of the total investment, is particularly weak. The Tax Policy Center has the most comprehensive information on the stimulus tax cuts. TPC’s “Tax Stimulus Report Card” outlines the tax provisions included in the stimulus, their estimated cost, and a subjective analysis on their effectiveness. But The Tax Policy Center doesn’t provide a way to localize stimulus tax information, or show how to report on the impact of tax breaks in a given community. Here’s an example of their work.