The Media Today

The eviction moratorium, the child tax credit, and the episodic poverty news cycle

August 3, 2021

Last week, the Biden administration called on Congress to extend a federal ban on evictions that health officials implemented last year as a response to the pandemic, citing the White House’s view that a recent Supreme Court ruling prohibited it from taking unilateral action. On Friday—with the Delta variant of the coronavirus raging nationwide and the moratorium set to expire on Saturday—the House left town for recess without even taking a proper vote on the issue. Progressive lawmakers were furious, so much so that several of their number slept on the steps outside the Capitol in protest. Cori Bush, a Democratic Congresswoman from Missouri who has personal experience of being unhoused, is still there; reporters have taken notice, and Bush has called into cable shows for interviews. Eviction “is actual violence on a person,” she told Chris Hayes last night, on MSNBC. “I will not sit by and be quiet because we want to talk about procedure and protocol.”

The expiry of the moratorium has been a big story in recent days. News organizations, which generally seem to enjoy talking about procedure and protocol, have detailed the ins and outs of the legal and policy situation: the Biden administration still believes it can’t act alone, so is now urging local authorities to extend or implement eviction bans of their own; officials are also urging localities to speed up the disbursement of rental-assistance funds that Congress already legislated, much of which is sitting untouched. Journalists have also told the stories of some of the millions of Americans facing the risk of eviction. NPR spoke with Safiya Kitwana, a single mom in DeKalb County, Georgia, who was approved for financial assistance, but did not receive enough cash to pay her landlord in full. A judge just imposed a temporary local eviction ban and Kitwana should soon be eligible to get the remainder of the money she owes, but it’s been a close call. “I’ve seen it happen where they just throw your stuff out in the parking lot,” she said. “It hurts to even talk about that portion of it, as far as what my kids are gonna see.”

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The eviction crisis didn’t suddenly become a big deal with the expiry of the moratorium; it was important before the pandemic, and, since COVID hit, has been a slow-moving story of various directives, deadlines, and delays. There has been some very good, ongoing coverage in that time, including on the local level. But the story has only rarely risen to the top of the national news cycle, and it’s arguably taken the crunch point of the expiry to focus the media conversation at its highest levels. (Speaking on CNN yesterday, Peter Hepburn, an academic involved with Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, noted that local officials have so far disbursed only three of the forty-six-billion dollars Congress allocated for rental assistance. Jim Sciutto, the host, cut in, sounding incredulous. “Three billion out of forty-six billion? Wow.”) The eviction story feels like yet another victim of the news peg, or the belief, sacrosanct within the media business, that coverage of a broader issue should hang on the “hook” of a specific event. As I wrote earlier this year, this dynamic privileges novelty (see: billionaires flying into space) while diluting the attention major outlets pay to deep, long-running societal problems.

Another recent example of this dynamic was the child tax credit—an unconditional cash benefit for most US parents that experts and campaigners have hailed as a historic, transformational step in the fight against child poverty. The policy received a flurry of national attention earlier this year when Biden passed it as part of his COVID relief package, and then again recently when checks started hitting bank accounts. In between times, it got much less attention; as The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey noted, citing data maintained by Stanford University, the tax credit has barely been mentioned on cable news compared to, say, vaccines or Donald Trump—perhaps contributing, among other factors, to a lack of awareness of the policy among the small, yet significant, proportion of parents who are eligible to receive the tax credit but won’t get it automatically. (When I searched Stanford’s cable-news tool for “eviction moratorium” this morning, the results looked even worse, up until a coverage spike in the past few days.) Again, that’s not to say there’s been no good coverage—but on the whole, the scale of attention paid to the credit over time has not matched its historic nature, whatever you may think of it as a policy.

Maintaining a longer-term focus on the tax credit is important, too, because it is a temporary measure; many Democrats want to extend it, but will likely face a fight to do so. Coverage that picks up the story again only on the eve of that fight will do a disservice to the families affected, which is most families, as well as any news consumers who are interested in hearing evidence on the effectiveness of public policies in real time. The same is true of other anti-poverty measures. Appearing on The Takeaway last week, Sarah Beth Gehl, a researcher at the Southern Economic Advancement Project, noted that while the overall poverty rate in the US has trended down thanks to pandemic-era assistance programs, many of these programs have been “episodic,” with the result that “we see this kind of lurching… families could really benefit for a few months and then dip back down into poverty.” That lurching, Gehl said, is “an important part of the policy conversation.” The same is true of the media conversation, and its own tendency toward the episodic. It shouldn’t take a member of Congress sleeping on the steps of the Capitol building to grab our collective attention and make poverty a big story again.

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Below, more on the eviction moratorium and the child tax credit:

Some news from the home front:
Today, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, in partnership with CJR, will release the first episodes of How We Got Here, a new podcast for journalists exploring how history and identity shape narrative. In the podcast, six Columbia journalism professors will examine how race, gender, class, immigration, and American empire impact the stories we cover and how we tell them. First up, Jelani Cobb discusses race, crime, criminal justice, and violence with Dr. Khalil Muhammad, a historian at Harvard, and Sam Freedman talks with Nell Irvin Painter and Eric Goldstein, two scholars in the field of Whiteness Studies. You can find out more, and listen, here.

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Correction: This post has been updated to clarify that Fox News announced that it has parted ways with Andrew Napolitano after John Fawcett filed his lawsuit.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.