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Media Fail: Unemployment Coverage | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Media Fail: Unemployment Coverage

Job fair

Hundreds of unemployed adults wait in line at a 2010 City University of New York job fair. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Editor's Clarification: This blog post mischaracterized recent articles in Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss. The writers of those pieces did not argue that "too many Jews" write for The Nation; they pointed out that The Nation has published more Jewish than Palestinian voices on the subject of BDS (both pro and con) and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and they called for the inclusion of more Palestinian writers in the debate.

 

My last Nation column before the break was China Goes Dark.

And speaking of The Nation, have you noticed what the magazine’s real problem is? Too many Jews! That’s right. Just like Richard Nixon instructing his aide to “count the Jews” at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and get rid of as many as he could, two pro-BDS websites, Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, published articles complaining about how many Jews write for The Nation. I salute both for their belated commitments to honesty and transparency. It’s always nice when people who pretend to care about one thing admit to their actual motivations, though I do wish each would clarify just how many Jews are too many. Also, we could use some specifics. What, for instance, about “Jews” with gentile mothers? Do they, like the Reform movement, accept patrilineality or must such Jews be converted by an orthodox rabbi to count? Should we use the Nurenburg laws to determine these questions? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oh, and the Palestinian Authority will be the first customer for Israel's Leviathan gas field. It's a good thing the PA is not a member of the American Studies Association or they would be in real trouble...

Alter-reviews:

1) The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)

Before the holidays, I somehow neglected to write up a wonderful new release from my friends at Mosaic documenting the musical partnership of Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb. Had the drummer/bandleader not found Fitzgerald in 1934, he might have died unknown, three years later, ravaged by the spinal tuberculosis with which he lived. And had the 17-year-old singer not been discovered by Webb and his wife Sally, who knows if we’d still be talking about her today?

Thanks to the release of The Complete Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941), an eight-CD set comprised of 187 tracks (three of which are previously unreleased in any format), I’ve been learning a ton about these two and enjoying it more than I can say. The set includes both pre-Ella material dating back to 1929 and fifty-nine tracks of Ella's recordings with both the full band and smaller ensembles that remained together for two years following Chick's passing in 1939.

Webb was hunchbacked, stiff and under five feet tall, but he overcame these physical limitations with his creativity, musicality, showmanship, personality and leadership. Ella came to his attention following her 1934 victory at Amateur Night at the Apollo. Shortly thereafter, at 17, she moved in with the Webbs, and began recording with the band and the rest is, as they saying goes, musical history. As John McDonough states in his extensive and highly informative notes, "Never in jazz history did a major swing band ever come to be so dominated by a single singer. But then no other swing band ever had Ella Fitzgerald."

Some favorites include "You'll Have to Swing It (aka Mr. Paganini)," "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and, of course, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." There are also two tracks featuring Ella with the Mills Brothers in acapella renditions of "Big Boy Blue" and "Dedicated to You." And the players range from Louis Jordan to Benny Carter with Taft Jordan, Bobby Stark, John Kirby, Hilton Jefferson, Wayman Carver, John Trueheart, Mario Bauza, Pete Clark, Chauncey Haughton, Garvin Bushell and Edgar Sampson in-between. Ram Ramirez and Eddie Barefield joined in the post-Webb years when the ensemble became known as Ella Fitzgerald and Her Orchestra.

Per usual, Mosaic’s production sets the standard for historical releases, as do the rare photographs, detailed notes by McDonough and the intensely researched and detailed track-by-track session information, much of it provided by Van Alexander, the one surviving participant in these sessions. Read all about them—and check out the wonderful videos they post—here.

2) The Political Economy of Human Happiness

Academic research on human happiness is much in vogue. Given the inherent interest of the subject, it is one that the media has been generous in devoting attention to. Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, road this wave of interest to a Sunday New York Times feature in December, wherein he argued (among other things) that leading a satisfying life was all about our "choices" over "values" and pursuing the "moral imperative" of "free enterprise."

Benjamin Radcliff, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, offers an alternative: human happiness is determined largely by the degree which we live in a just and equitable society, as reflected by our commitment to the public policies (e.g. the social safety net, pro-worker labor market protections) and institutions (principally strong labor unions) most consistent with those goals. Unlike Brooks, he is also doing original econometric research, published by peer-reviewed journals (like the American Political Science Review). He has a new book (from Cambridge University Press) on these themes titledThe Political Economy of Human Happiness.

Ben’s a great guy, so check it out.

Now here’s Reed:

Media Fail: Unemployment Coverage
by Reed Richardson

For 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed, the arrival of this year’s holiday season included the unwelcome and unwanted gift of austerity, thanks to a miserly Congress. This week, President Obama and Congressional Democrats will launch a campaign to undo the expiration of extended unemployment benefits, making it the first big policy fight of 2014. But if the establishment media’s stilted, simplistic framing of its unemployment coverage over the past few days is any indication, it may very well be a winter of discontent for many jobless Americans, as well as those relying upon food stamps or hoping for a raise in the minimum wage.

1. The process frame

Obviously, journalists should press members of Congress on the realistic prospects of any proposed legislation (a point I’ll return to later). But what’s all too common inside the Beltway is an unhealthy, almost subconscious obsession with process that avoids any analysis of the merits of policy. For an example of how this plays out in the unemployment debate, one need only have watched CBS News’s Face the Nation this past Sunday, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a guest. Reid started off noting the popular support that extending unemployment benefits enjoys among a broad majority of Americans as well as its multiplicative economic benefits. But during Reid's eight-minute dialogue with host Bob Schieffer (from the 4:00 to 12:00 mark on the video), time and again the latter returned to the process angle, all but ignoring the real-world impact that failing to re-up unemployment would have on many Americans. Here’s a representative exchange from the back and forth with Reid:

HARRY REID: But let’s start focusing on helping the middle class. We have a situation in America today that is really not good. The last thirty years, the top one percent of Americans, and their income and wealth has increased three hundred percent. The middle class during that same thirty years has lost almost ten percent. We’ve got to turn this around. I'm—I want—I want the economy to be good. I want people to be rich. I have nothing against rich people. But the rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. The middle class are being squeezed out of existence.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Well, let me just ask you about, a straight out political question here. If the Republicans try to filibuster this, and so far I think there’s only one Republican Senator that has said he’s ready to go along with you on this. Do you have the votes to block a filibuster on this?

What’s striking about this disconnected exchange is the different agendas on display. (And lest you think I’m cherry-picking one example I encourage you to watch the whole thing.) It’s Schieffer’s show, of course, and, as a journalist, he’s under no obligation to only engage on the points offered up by a politician. But critical listening and asking incisive, follow-up questions is what someone in Schieffer’s positions is being paid (handsomely) to do. Yet, when you revisit the entire segment you see a media professional only hammering home his own DC insider storyline (“Can it pass?”) with only a perfunctory, upfront mention of the consequences of unemployment cutbacks. And though Reid makes a valiant effort to steer the conversation back to, you know, policy choices affecting the long-term unemployed, Schieffer effectively hijacks the discussion with a series of hypothetical queries about vote counts and filibusters. By the end, it’s hard to even distinguish this specific debate from countless others on judicial nominations, immigration reform, or gun control.

This kind of insider-y coverage isn’t confined to the Sunday morning news shows. Last week, a big, front-page New York Times story on the Democratic push to raise the minimum wage in 2014 devoted zero effort to analyzing the real-world effects of such a move. Granted, the story was centered on the political strategizing behind the scenes, but when it came to explaining the positive or negative impact of raising the minimum wage, the article simply punted. Relying on tried-and-true false equivalence, it quoted Democrats touting a higher minimum wage’s economic benefits and then Republicans claiming it would dampen the recovery and discourage hiring. (No, it wouldn’t.) To read this kind of story is to get neither a sense of the possible outcomes nor an idea which party’s ideas might best benefit our democracy.

2. The compromise frame

This fixation on tactics, what may or may not pass Congress (i.e., the Republican House) brings us to the second popular media prism of unemployment extension debate. It’s what I like to call “What do Democrats have to give up?” Evidence of this frame could be found later on the same Face the Nation show, when Schieffer’s Republican guests, Republican Congressmen Peter King and Matt Salmon, made the stakes crystal clear. “Democrats should make compromises,” said King matter-of-factly. Salmon, after deriding unemployment as a “giveaway program” that “doesn’t create one job,” threw out the now-favorite GOP trick of demanding a dollar-for-dollar offset of the one-year, $26-billion cost of extending unemployment.

At that point, however, Schieffer challenged both suggestions with some important factual context. He pointed out that fourteen of the last seventeen emergency unemployment extensions—and all five of those passed during George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House—sailed through Congress with no strings attached. And then he noted that more than $1 trillion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were budgeted as emergency spending as well, none of which the GOP demanded be paid for by corresponding spending cuts. So why, then, he insisted, should Democrats have to bend to Republican demands when their own precedent suggests otherwise?

Just kidding, this is what Schieffer really asked:

BOB SCHIEFFER: Congressman King, do you see any way, any kind of a compromise that could be struck to continue at least some part of this unemployment insurance for these people?

Remember how Schieffer so clearly counter-programmed Reid’s message earlier? Contrast that with this gooey softball. You probably won’t be surprised to know that, by golly, King does see a way that Democrats might give in enough to satisfy Republicans. Turns out it involves more of the same old vague, right-wing talking points about cutting back on government regulations, although, to be fair, King oh-so-charitably doesn’t insist on offsetting every dollar of any extension. His counterpart Salmon certainly does, though. Of course, Salmon helpfully suggests another brilliant compromise solution to curing the “root cause” of unemployment, approving the Keystone XL pipeline, a conservative pet project expected to create a grand total of thirty-five permanent jobs.

3. The time-to-move-on frame

There’s been talk about the importance of fighting poverty among a few Republicans lately, and true to form, parts of the establishment media have been all too happy to oblige these attempts at a party makeover. But for all the professed compassion from folks like Rep. Paul Ryan, the press rarely, if ever, presses them on their opinions about unemployment insurance. That’s a shame because it happens to be a great anti-poverty program.

In fact, according to the Census Bureau, unemployment benefits kept more than six million Americans from falling into poverty from 2010 through 2012. And a recent Columbia University study concluded that the combined social safety net package of unemployment benefits, food stamps and tax credits for the poor successfully prevented what might have been a severe outbreak of poverty during the Great Recession. Thanks to the federal government’s broad commitment to long-term unemployment benefits, the poverty rate only rose 0.8-percentage points over five years, compared to a 1.5-percentage point rise during the brief 1990 recession. “It’s sort of remarkable,” study co-author Christopher Wimer noted. “Without the safety net, poverty would have risen by five or six percentage points from 2007 through 2012.”

Unfortunately, the anti-poverty benefits of unemployment insurance have seen diminishing returns of late, mostly due to—you guessed it—diminished funding. In fact, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that due to the severity of these recent cutbacks, as of this past September “the number of unemployed workers receiving no unemployment benefits was actually higher than at any other point during the recession.” As federal and state governments have curtailed legislative support for addressing our lingering long-term unemployment crisis, a corresponding disinterest among the national press corps has also taken hold.

Thus, you begin to see a one-size-fits-all approach to economic coverage, one that deems the booming stock market as indicative that the long-term unemployment are somehow no longer deserving of any extra assistance. Consider CNN host Candy Crowley’s riposte to Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher on her show State of the Union this past Sunday. After Belcher reels off a list of Obama’s economic achievements since taking office, Crowley jumps at what she clearly sees as logical hypocrisy. “A little hard to argue that the long-term unemployment benefit should stay if the economy is OK?” she asks archly.

Actually, it’s not at all hard to understand this argument (which, ultimately, was Belcher’s point). Or, at least, it shouldn’t be hard for a big-name, national journalist. That’s because it’s well documented that this has been the most lopsided recovery in recent history. As the CBPP points out, the current, long-term unemployment rate—2.6 percent—is still twice as high as any other point in history when emergency unemployment expired. But from Crowley’s simplistic vista, it’s just a short trip around the bend to Fox News. If that network’s not avoiding the topic altogether, it’s dogwhistling about long-term unemployment benefits becoming a “permanent way of life,” as Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt did on Monday. To keep on giving the unemployed more "free" money only encourages them to sit at home and watch TV, right Rand Paul? Never mind that that’s a thoroughly debunked myth or that the long-term unemployed, particularly people of color, now face rampant discrimination.

4. The legitimizing crazy frame

Back in 2011, a Congressional Budget Office study estimated that extending unemployment benefits would add as much as 1.9 dollars to the GDP for every dollar spent. Compared to other options, like reducing employer payroll taxes, investing in infrastructure spending, or reducing business income taxes, unemployment benefits provided, by far, the biggest economic boost. And yet, when “pro-growth” Republicans start promoting shameless right-wing fantasies as a replacement for long-term unemployment benefits—things like approving the Keystone XL pipeline or huge corporate tax breaks—they rarely get called out for pushing impractical conservative dogma at the expense of workers. Case in point, this exchange between Republican Sen. Rand Paul and host George Stephanopoulos during ABC News’s This Week this past Sunday:

PAUL: So, what I've been saying all along, we have to figure out how to create jobs and keep people from becoming long-term unemployed. That's why I promoted the economic freedom zones, which would dramatically lower taxes in areas where there's long-term unemployment.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But are you saying now that if this extension is paid for, you can support it?

PAUL: Well, what I have always said is that it needs to be paid for, but we also need to do something for long-term unemployed people, and that is, we need to create something new that creates jobs. So, what I would like to do, when we get back, is one, if we extend it, we pay for it. But, two, we add something to it that would create jobs. And so what I have been promoting are economic freedom zones, which any area that has unemployment one-and-a-half times the national average, we would dramatically lower taxes to try to spur and stimulate the economy there and create jobs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Another big issue, this controversy over the NSA…

Again, a missed chance to engage and mine the discussion for important context. If Stephanopoulos had pressed Paul on these economic freedom zones, he might have gotten the senator to explain more about the plan to create ominous, Gilded Age-like outposts inside poor neighborhoods. Places where a regressive fiscal policy would all but eliminate personal, corporate, and capital gains taxes and EPA regulations would be rolled back. Libertarians might call these zones paradise, workers might call them Bangladesh-lite.

No serious journalist should abide being used like this as a prop for outright economic hucksterism. They owe it to their viewers/readers to question dubious policy claims and poke holes in obvious egotistical grandstanding. And, let’s be clear, any politician that responds to a question about long-term unemployment the way Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did on CNN’s SOTU this past Sunday deserves to laughed out of any Sunday morning talk show green room.

CROWLEY: In the states, they can get up to a combined state and federal unemployment benefits, they could get up to seventy-three weeks, close to a year and a half. Where do you stand on that?

WALKER: Well, two things. One, let's be clear, the reason why the White House is so actively pushing this is they want to desperately talk about anything but Obamacare. The best thing we could do to help people who are unemployed or underemployed is fix Obamacare, replace it with a patient-centered plan that put people in charge, not the government in charge, and got rid of the uncertainty that so many small businesses here in my state and across the country talk about. But two, the specific benefits to me, any discussion about this should be focused on what sort of reforms are we going to put in place. You know, he talked earlier, the previous segment, about people looking for work. Well, the federal government doesn't require a lot. We just made a change last year so that people had to look five times or more a week for work without our requirement change. They could go as little as two times a week. I don't know about you, Candy, but if I was out of work, I'd be looking more than twice a week for a job. I'd be looking for every day except maybe today. I take Sunday off to go to church and pray that I could find a job on Monday, but I think there need to be reforms in that system.… Instead of just talking about extending benefits, we should talk about getting people the training they need to fill those jobs. That's much better off than just putting a check out.

CROWLEY: So, you don't, per se, have a problem with extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, but you'd like it coupled with some other things?

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Some other things. Oy, journalism that indulges in this kind of dense, unthinking analysis would be funny, if it weren’t so frightening. Gov. Walker clearly signals that his grasp of the unemployment issue is predicated on sanctimoniously throwing rhetorical red meat to his future GOP primary voters, not on political reality. President Obama isn’t about to replace the Affordable Care Act with anything. Economic policy uncertainty has dropped to levels not seen since 2008. Oh, and for all his talk about job training, it was Walker who cut $250 million in state aid from the UW system in 2011, including a 30 percent cut to technical colleges.

All of that should qualify as important context to Walker’s Obamacare scare-mongering and Republican boilerplate about “freedom” and “opporutnity,” yet there is barely a peep from Crowley on the governor’s actual track record. Instead, incredibly, she pivots to doing damage control for the GOP. Rather than simply challenge the wisdom behind the party’s out-of-the-mainstream positions, Crowley—twice—structures her questions around asking Walker how his party can better “message” itself and its broadly unpopular ideas to the public.

The question, sad to say, answers itself, and speaks volumes about the sorry state of the establishment media in Washington. It also suggests a long, cold winter ahead for the unemployed.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

The mail:
iFuck Alterman
fuckalterman@USA.com

Colorado
you are an asshole since the time you have publicly MURDERED RALPH NADER.
criminalizing a third party run is defeeating liberty, AMERICA and the whole process of democracy.
Enjoy your socialist state you fucking moron.

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