Remembering the ‘maniacal intensity’ differently

A National Journal report is generating a lot of attention this week, documenting what many of us perceived to be true — the media has shifted its attention “away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit.”

The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson offers an explanation as to why this is.

On Capitol Hill, any trace of job-oriented stimulus has melted with the winter snow. Instead, the city’s hot for deficit reduction, and the press has caught the fever.

Articles mentioning unemployment have plummeted nearly 70 percent since last summer, while articles mentioning the deficit have doubled over the same time, according to a National Journal report.

Is this pernicious Beltway loopism? Maybe. But more likely it’s the inevitable result of an election that punished stimulus-happy Democrats and opened the doors wide for Republicans who promised to focus with maniacal intensity on the deficit. The 2010 election reshaped Congress, the Congress reshaped the jobs-and-deficit debate, and press coverage shifted to the deficit.

I agree with that last point about news outlets following the lead of policymakers. Indeed, there’s a degree of common sense at play — the media isn’t covering unemployment because policymakers aren’t focused on unemployment. This is nearly always how news organizations cover current events, with reporters cover what’s going on, not what’s failing to go on. As Thompson put it, “[I]t’s hard to blame the media too much for resisting to write feverishly about nonexistent efforts to fix a static unemployment problem.”

That’s true, but it’s also problematic. It’s partly why Greg Sargent calls this the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop” — politicians prioritize the deficit over job creation, which leads the media to prioritize the deficit over job creation, which encourages politicians to prioritize the deficit over job creation even more.

What I disagree with is the notion that Republican “promised to focus with maniacal intensity on the deficit” during the last election cycle. Indeed, I’d argue that’s largely backwards. GOP candidates had several areas of emphasis leading up to the midterms, but one of the most common refrains was, “Where are the jobs?” For many Republicans, the promise was to “focus with maniacal intensity” on unemployment, which was largely responsible for such dramatic GOP gains.

Had Republicans let the public know they’d shift the focus “with maniacal intensity” away from job creation, the GOP probably wouldn’t have done nearly as well.