Covering the Unemployment Benefits Extension Vote

The reporting and play on a critical issue for millions needs to be a lot better

(UPDATE: Thanks for the comments, all. All I can say is I hope things turn around for you—soon. I’ve quoted some of your comments in a new post on how the first one showed how much appetite there is for this story.)

House Republicans blocked a bill extending unemployment benefits yesterday. If it’s not extended in eleven days, 800,000 people will lose all benefits. By the end of the year, 2 million more will be flat broke. How did the three most influential papers play it? Not well—The Wall Street Journal excepted.

The New York Times folds just two paragraphs on this critical issue into an A16 story with a lede about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

The Washington Post stuffs the unemployment news in the ninth paragraph of an inside story in which the first eight graphs discuss expiring tax cuts. Sample sentence on the tax cuts:

Unless Congress acts, virtually every taxpayer will be hit with higher taxes in January that could leave monthly paychecks hundreds of dollars lighter.

Sample sentence on unemployment (there are only three sentences to choose from, and emphasis is mine):

Unless it is extended, advocates say as many as 3 million people will see their checks cut off by the end of January.

The Post story gives the distinct impression that it’s more concerned about tax cuts than unemployment benefits.

The Wall Street Journal is much better, giving the unemployment benefits standoff its own story and good space on A5. Here’s the lede:

House Republicans Thursday torpedoed a bill to extend benefits for the long-term unemployed, pressing their demand that the $12 billion cost of continuing the program be offset rather than adding to the deficit.

Twelve billion dollars. Neither the Times nor Post notes that number.

If there’s a quibble here with the Journal, it’s that it doesn’t put the $12 billion number in the context of the debate over whether and how to extend the Bush tax cuts (actually, it does—it just doesn’t give us comparable numbers on the tax cuts).

Those tax cuts, which were famously not “offset rather than adding to the deficit,” will cost twenty times as much as the unemployment benefits extension in 2011—or $238 billion.

But there’s no real debate on extending most of those tax cuts, especially at a time when the economy is depressed. Where Democrats and Republicans disagree is on whether tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners, ones who make more than $250,000 a year, should be extended. How much would that unfunded cut—86 percent of which would go to millionaires—cost? Thirty-six billion dollars in 2011, or three times what extending unemployment benefits would cost.

In other words, an average $100,000 each for 310,000 millionaires. You have to marvel at how the right isn’t holding that up until they’re paid for.

Tax cuts for the well-off add to the deficit just as much (or more) as unemployment spending does—and they’re far less stimulative to the economy.

Meantime, for those arguing that those on benefits won’t look for work: What work? Unemployment’s at 9.6 percent. Underemployment is at one in six workers. There are five unemployed for every job opening. Losing benefits even for a couple of weeks will be catastrophic for families already on the brink.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: , , , ,