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Will the Media Hand the GOP Power?
An interview with Dean Baker.
“So in short, the reporting on the economy has been incredibly one-sided and the media has continually highlighted and exaggerated and distorted the negative aspects.”
The GOP has to be kept out of power for the sake of civilization’s survival and for the sake of people’s lives and property and families:
“Are People in Denial?” (29 December 2021)
“Time Is Running Out to Avert a Harrowing Future, Climate Panel Warns” (28 February 2022)
And the GOP is assaulting US institutions and assaulting the US electoral system, so that’s another reason to keep them away from power:
Regarding the 2022 US midterms, it’s striking to think that the media might hand the GOP power. And yet there have been many instances where outlets like the New York Times have demonstrated a huge bias against the Biden administration.
Dean Baker is a US economist who co-founded the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). I was honored and thrilled to interview Baker—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and added hyperlinks to.
1) What legislative accomplishments have the Dems had under Biden, and what can the Dems do regarding the 2022 midterms?
This is a very fluid situation—Biden’s approval ratings have fallen sharply over the last two or three months, but that means that his approval ratings could also rise sharply over the next two or three months. So we don’t know what will happen, but the idea that Biden is hopelessly unpopular isn’t well grounded.
My own guess is that his popularity will rise if the pandemic remains under control and inflation subsides, but both these things are uncertain.
In terms of legislative accomplishments, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) boosted the economy enormously—we’re now above the pre-pandemic output level and almost back to the pre-pandemic growth path, so that’s an extraordinary accomplishment.
The ARP also provided for increased subsidies in the Affordable Care Act exchanges—this has substantially reduced the number of uninsured people. These subsidies make the exchanges affordable and effectively provide insurance to the entire population—people who lose their insurance for whatever reason can now get affordable insurance on the exchanges.
It was also a great policy to expand the child tax credit—that expansion reduced child poverty by almost 50%. The expansion expired at the start of 2022, but Biden might still be able to get some version through Congress.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill was also a big deal. It’s true that voters won’t have seen many of the benefits by election day, but voters hopefully will have seen photo ops showing that bridges and roads and other infrastructure items are under construction, and those photo ops will show that good things are happening and also remind voters that Biden—unlike Trump—was actually able to get something through Congress.
2) To what extent has the media been unfair to Biden and the Dems? On Biden specifically, you tweeted this:
I’ve followed news reporting closely for more than four decades. I have never seen such a one-sided hit job on a U.S. president (foreign leaders maybe).
The media has basically branded Biden as a failure.
They’ve substituted this “failure” branding for reality again and again. And Afghanistan is probably the most dramatic example. It’s true that Biden made a serious blunder with his foolish statement that we wouldn’t see a Vietnam-style collapse and evacuation—I’m not sure whether Biden got bad information or actually ignored good information. But the media routinely refers to the withdrawal as disastrous when in reality Biden managed to get somewhere around 120,000 people out of the country in the span of two to three weeks—that’s truly remarkable and far more than most observers had thought possible. So rather than giving Biden credit on a remarkably successful evacuation performance, the media pushed the idea that the withdrawal was a disaster.
And it’s a similar story with the economy. We’ve had a remarkably fast recovery as a direct result of Biden’s ARP—thanks to the recovery, millions of low-income workers have gotten unprecedented wage hikes and also gotten an unprecedented freedom to quit their jobs, so the recovery is a really big deal.
And yet we hear almost none of this positive story. Most families actually have a considerably higher inflation-adjusted income now than they had before the pandemic, but the media talks about inflation all the time and gives us endless stories of inflation-caused hardship—it makes no sense to say that people were doing well in 2019 and that people are now experiencing great hardship, since people’s real incomes are actually higher now.
Also, it’s just not honest reporting to cover the rise in gas prices or milk prices or beef prices with stories that highlight extremely unusual consumers who claim to consume far more of these items than is typical. For example, a typical person will use a bit more than 10 gallons of gas a week and will have to pay $10 more per week if the price goes up $1 per gallon—that’s hardly a trivial amount, but most workers have over the last two years seen pay raises that would easily cover that amount. Some of the news reports find people who claim to use 20 to 30 gallons of gas per week—we know that that’s not typical, so why would the media highlight extremely unusual people in order to cover the issue of higher gas prices?
And most pieces on living standards haven’t mentioned the expanded child tax credit that went to most families with kids and that made a huge difference for moderate- and low-income families.
There’s also little discussion of the massive wave of mortgage refinancing that has saved 20 million homeowners an average of more than $2500 a year in interest payments.
So in short, the reporting on the economy has been incredibly one-sided and the media has continually highlighted and exaggerated and distorted the negative aspects.
3) What do you think about the way that the media has covered the legislation that the Dems have tried to pass? And about the way that the media has covered the influence that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have had in the Senate?
There’s been very little coverage of what the various items in Build Back Better (BBB) would’ve actually done, so people haven’t had much reason to appreciate the bill. And instead of informing people, the media has done the following:
continually highlighted the bill’s cost
never put that cost into any context
usually not even explained that the spending figures would be spread over ten years
often—in ostensibly objective news stories—inserted a disdainful adjective like “massive”
Regarding Manchin and especially Sinema, the coverage has been largely fawning. And the media has assumed that these senators’ opposition to BBB has been based on conviction instead of corruption—this might be at least partly true in Manchin’s case, but there’s absolutely zero reason to believe that Sinema has been acting out of conviction, since she reversed her recent stands on many issues in order to oppose BBB and since she takes large amounts of money from the interest groups that stand to benefit most from blocking BBB.
Unfortunately, the focus of all the coverage has been “Democrats fail” instead of “What would this bill mean for families across the country?”.
And there’s been almost no discussion of ostensible moderates in the GOP like Senators Murkowski and Collins who have refused to work with Democrats to pass a bill that has many features that they themselves have favored in the past.
4) How might media bias hand the GOP power regarding the issues where the Dems are supposed to be vulnerable? Here are some issues that will presumably hurt the Dems in the 2022 midterms—I might’ve omitted some issues and I don’t know how much media bias there’s been on each of these issues:
school closures—see this piece from Matt Taibbi
Inflation is the biggest issue—it’s a real problem, but the media is blowing it out of proportion and ignoring the economy’s positive aspects.
There’s an effort to pin the rise in crime on Democrats even though the big increase was in 2020 when Trump was in the White House—the GOP doesn’t have any serious plan for reducing crime, but the media will treat this as a problem for Democrats.
I don’t think many people really care about border security or Afghanistan—these are just things for people who hate the Democrats to yell about.
I suspect that Covid won’t be an issue by election day if current trends continue. Biden was poorly prepared for the Omicron surge—we didn’t have the rapid tests that were widely available in other countries, and I doubt that having the tests would’ve done much to slow the spread, but people want to know if they’re infected before coming into contact with someone they know who’s vulnerable.
There were many cases where school boards or local officials or state officials went overboard in closing schools—this rightly got many people angry, and the media has chosen to highlight this. But the media has almost completely ignored the death tolls in states like Florida—and like South Dakota—where GOP governors thought it was cool to let the pandemic spread unchecked. In many cases the media has even praised GOP governors’ handling of the pandemic, as though 10s of 1000s of avoidable deaths is no big deal, so this is really unconscionable.
The coverage has been pretty awful regarding supply chains—the problems have been covered like it’s somehow Biden’s fault even though similar problems have cropped up all over the world and even though supply chains are overwhelmingly a private industry issue that the government has little control over and little ability to rectify.
5) What do you think about the point that the media presents a distorted picture because the media grades the GOP on a curve and expects absolutely nothing from the GOP? I urge everyone to watch this fascinating discussion where they talk about how the media is like a tennis umpire who only pays attention to one side of the court:
This is very much on the mark.
It’s taken for granted that Democrats are actually trying to do things—Democrats are evaluated based on their success in getting things done. But in contrast, the media seems to assume that the Republicans have no policy agenda—Republicans are graded based on their ability to obstruct the Democrats’ progress and create bad press for the Democrats.