Are the fiscal fights a bore?

Not to those who dig

One of the more telling stories to emerge during the holidays was Politico’s candid take on coverage of the fiscal cliff. The long showdown had Washington’s politicians fully engaged, Politico pointed out, but not necessarily its media. Was it “really that interesting to talk about day in, day out” Politico wanted to know?

Politico partially answered its own question later in the piece: “If most reporters are being honest, they’d most likely echo what Fox News host Shepard Smith bluntly told “Studio B” viewers recently: ‘I’m bored to tears with this story.’”

Really? Will Cain, a CNN contributor and columnist for TheBlaze, provided a somewhat more nuanced take:

It’s the ‘Hangover 2’ of politics. It’s incredibly tedious and repetitive, with moments of promise, but ultimately you know you’re being ripped off…There is a good cast of issues and opportunities, like tax reform we should debate. But instead, we settle for small tweaks to a worn-out debate over minimal spending cuts versus raising taxes on the rich.

Still, why settle for small beer? In some ways the gamesmanship of fiscal cliff negotiations—which continues apace, with many a deadline threat ahead—turns one convention of political reporting on its head. The cliché is that political reporters tend to prefer the excitement of political back and forth to the stupefying details of policy, like tax tables, income trends, defense procurement stats, or the economic ripples from sequestration.

But in this case, it’s actually the so-called drama that’s boring and it is the wonky details that bring the story to meaning and life. Instead of, ‘Is the fiscal cliff interesting?’ a better question might be: ‘What kind of reporter can make the fiscal cliff interesting?’

The many public policy issues buried in the ongoing fiscal debates do indeed provide clear opportunities for reporters who are willing to dig for how the gruesome details shape lives. As NBC’s Chuck Todd noted, the discussion separates the sheep from the goats. He told Politico, “The cliff separates the folks who want to be hard-core Washington and political reporters and those folks who simply want to be reporters who parachute in on the big story.”

Could it be that some reporters are framing the story too narrowly? Steve Kornacki, co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle, told Politico “if he [the president] gives in on, say, the Medicare eligibility age, that’s huge.” Indeed it would be a huge political story. But why is it a story only after the president caves, if he does? The president has not made clear whether he supports raising the age from 65 to 67 and, as we’ve pointed out, all raising the Medicare age has vast implications for millions of Americans, which the media have barely examined. Why not look at what some real families will face if this happens, along the lines of what Carla Johnson of The Associated Press did a while back in describing how a real family would fare under the Romney-Ryan voucher plan.

Since this fiscal mess won’t be untangled for a while, there’s a chance for lots of great reporting. For example, the lobbying story could be a place to start. Special interests are working hard to make sure they won’t be touched in two months, when sequestration rises again. Defense contractors are crawling the halls of Congress, working to ensure that defense spending will be spared.

Then, of course, there are all the related bills with fiscal implications, like hurricane relief, or like the farm bill, which shapes our food system and, among many other things, determines the fate of food stamps for the poor. That bill has been dormant since the summer, when Congress couldn’t agree on re-authorization. The New Year fiscal-cliff deal extended the current farm law for nine months, leaving the food stamp issue unresolved. How about taking a good look at how households fare on their food stamp allotment—especially since 93 percent of the benefits go to those with incomes below the poverty line, and many of those are elderly?

The implementation of Obamacare is also rife with fiscal stories. Here’s one: the insurance industry and the National Federation of Independent Business have been working behind the scenes to eliminate the tax on insurance companies called for by the Affordable Care Act. Those taxes, which will ultimately be passed on to employers, fund subsidies for the uninsured. What happens to the subsidies if eliminating the tax sneaks into some final bargain?

And for those wanting to take the deepest of dives, there’s reason to explore aspects of just why and how we got to this fiscal Armageddon in the first place. Here’s one theory: In late fall, Thomas Edsall, the former Washington Post political reporter, wrote a long piece in The New York Times about what he called the “underlying and inadequately explored theme of the 2012 election.” He considered the work of a number of economists about the prospects for growth and then argued:

The conservative political class recognizes that the halcyon days of shared growth with the United States leading the world economy may be over. The wealthy are acutely aware that the political threat to their status and comfort would come from rising popular demand for policies of income redistribution.

That’s why, Edsall argued, Republicans are determined to protect the Bush tax cuts, prevent tax increases and further cuts in domestic social spending, and kill off the welfare state. Hence the debate over whether the US can afford Social Security and Medicare.

It’s a big argument. Is he right? This and many related questions require a hard look at the nation’s economic pie—how it’s cut up now and in the future. It’s a good bet audiences will be interested in that, and no reporter will be bored.

Related Content

A hunger for the food-stamp story

How an anti-tax HIT squad employs the press

Medicare, Paul Ryan, and beyond: a primer

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

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , ,