Readers of The Wall Street Journal were treated to similar stuff. A “fiscal cliff” headline was bannered across the top of Thursday’s print edition, and the story’s opening contained this passage:
But the pressure is on. Deep, automatic federal-spending cuts and tax increases—a combination widely known as the “fiscal cliff”—will hit in January unless Mr. Obama and Congress agree to some other way to reduce the budget deficit.
Going over the cliff, economists say, would not only risk another recession, but would intensify anxiety about the dysfunction of the U.S. political system. Uncertainty over political turmoil could lead to more turbulence like Wednesday, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 312.95 points, or 2.4%, to 12932.73. That was this year’s largest decline in both points and percentage terms. Asian markets also fell in early trading Thursday, with Tokyo down 1.2% and South Korea down 1.4%.
Online, that was accompanied by a poll in which readers could choose either that “necessary compromises will be made” or that “we’ll go over the cliff.” And just to drive the metaphor home a bit further, the story was accompanied by an explainer video in which economics editor David Wessel literally stands on top of a cliff. (To be fair, the budget explainer in the video is pretty good. And six minutes in, esteemed budget hawk Alice Rivlin acknowledges that it wouldn’t necessarily be an economic catastrophe to go over the cliff—though it would be a “demonstration that there was no hand on the tiller.” But by then, the thrust is clear.)
Friday’s Journal had more of the same on page one, and gave prominent play to a new CBO report that described, again, how bad it would be for the economy if all the scheduled tax hikes and spending cuts go into effect. (A nice graphic broke down the impact of different provisions, according to the CBO.) That’s true, but it’s not news—and it seems unlikely to happen, whether or not a deal is reached by the end of the year.
There is an important “to be fair” point here: assuming the political coverage is accurate, Obama and Senate Democrats do seem to be searching for some bipartisan compromise in the coming weeks. That might mean kicking the can down the road (in other words, calling off the “cliff,” which is an arbitrary creation of Congress in the first place). Or it might mean actually reaching agreement on a big tax and spending deal, of the sort Obama sought in vain for much of 2011. If that’s what’s happening, of course political reporters should tell us about it.
But if that’s the course negotiations take, it’s because important players in Washington chose that course over other possible courses—not because they were at the brink of a cliff, or because they faced up to the “necessary compromises” that had to be made. Readers deserve clear-eyed reporting that says as much.
Update: In the wake of House Speaker John Boehner’s Friday’s press conference, Yglesias has a new column that takes a longer look at the leverage issue. It’s a recommended read.