In the middle of the last decade, political scientist Marc Hetherington wrote about the declining public trust in government, noting that while it was the product of many factors, “media portrayal[s] of government and leaders as incapable of confronting political challenges” helped bring distrust to the fore.
Hetherington was hardly the first to make this point, but his formulation is apt. And such portrayals contribute to a remarkable problem: not ideological hostility to government (though there is plenty of that in the right-wing media marketplace) but diminished expectations—in the public and in the press—about what government can accomplish.
There is a solid body of research showing that media reporting inspires skepticism about government action. For example, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar has written about TV news’s strong preference for “episodic” rather than “thematic” narratives—in effect, coverage that operates at the anecdotal and personal rather than the abstract or collective level. From a storyteller’s perspective, that may seem an obvious choice, but it has perverse consequences. It “discourages viewers from attributing responsibility to government,” which, in effect, “reinforces the Republican message of limited government.”
In the late 1990s, Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson identified another way that media framing undercuts support for active government. Increasingly, they wrote, the dominant way to cover politics was to treat all political actions as maneuvers in an ongoing game and to expose the self-interested motives behind them. This kind of coverage, they suggested, teaches news consumers to be cynical about politics. And that cynicism, Cappella and Jamieson argued, may in turn make voters more hostile to new policy initiatives, no matter their views.
These studies do more than show that news reports can make people more skeptical about government. They undermine the media’s claim to deliver “accountability journalism.” Perpetuating the idea that the government can’t meet important challenges, after all, is but a half-step away from excusing the government when it doesn’t meet those challenges.
Coverage of the Federal Reserve’s response to the unemployment crisis provides a useful case study. For much of the past quarter-century, the Fed enjoyed an exalted status in the mainstream business and political press. Former chair Alan Greenspan was the “Maestro,” and even amid the wreckage of the financial crisis, his successor, Ben Bernanke, was Time’s 2009 Person of the Year. But in late summer of 2010 the recovery was sluggish; unemployment had barely declined; inflation was low and falling. The Fed’s traditional tool to boost the economy, lowering short-term interest rates, had had a limited effect. Voices in the economics blogosphere—first conservatives, then liberals—argued there were unconventional steps the central bank should take that would provide monetary stimulus. Bernanke had made many of the same arguments when Japan was in a similar plight a decade earlier, even calling for “Rooseveltian resolve” on the part of policy-makers.
That August, Bernanke acknowledged the weakness of the recovery. “The issue at this stage is not whether we have the tools to help support economic activity and guard against disinflation,” he said. “We do.” Then, having admitted both that the Fed was not meeting its dual mandate and that he and his colleagues had numerous tools at their disposal, Bernanke proceeded to outline steps the central bank might take—if things got worse.
For journalists, the question should have been obvious: If you’re failing at your job, and there’s more you could do, why aren’t you doing it?
This question was asked repeatedly by anguished economics bloggers. But in leading media outlets, coverage rarely followed that line. And while it’s true that some credible voices thought there was little more the central bank could do, such outlets didn’t even present a debate between the do-more and the stand-pat crowds. Instead, they framed the Fed’s tentative steps as on the outer limits of possible action, obscuring Bernanke’s acknowledgment that the Fed was doing less than it could. The New York Times’s account of his speech, for example, omitted his remark about the central bank’s “tools.” And while the article reported the chairman’s promise to provide stimulus if the economy deteriorated, it also gave prominent, sympathetic play to his statement that “central bankers alone cannot solve the world’s economic problems”—a point that has little bearing on a sudden, dramatic spike in joblessness, exactly the sort of problem central bankers are supposed to solve.
Two days later, another Times article repeated the same line, then turned to observers who said the Fed was facing “excessive pressure” to act. Subsequent stories dwelled on the “risks” associated with the modest expansionary measures the Fed had taken. The risks associated with not doing enough—indeed, the very notion that the Fed might be too passive, rather than too active—were rarely mentioned.
The subtext in much of the Times coverage was made explicit by the Washington Post, which that October ran a long Sunday feature under the headline, “In this recovery, Washington has less power over the economy than you think.” It would be hard to find a more succinct summary of the coverage.
Reporters at elite publications seem to think “accountability journalism” refers to investigations that expose wrongdoing—and it does. But it also means examining how well our public institutions are meeting national challenges. And a story in which no one has power or responsibility is a story in which no one can be held to account. In trying to explain Bernanke’s passivity, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias recently wrote, “All throughout the policy apparatus people have strong incentives to avoid saying that they have the power to fix problems and should be judged based on outcomes.” Media coverage that emphasizes the government’s powerlessness just reinforces those incentives.
So how would true accountability journalism have handled this case? First, it would have asked the right questions, as Darren Gersh of PBS’s Nightly Business Report did in January, when Bernanke held a press conference to discuss the Fed’s latest outlook. “It doesn’t look like you’re meeting any of your goals for the next three years on the economy,” he said, “so why isn’t the Fed doing more now?”
More broadly, journalists would proceed on the assumption that effective policy responses exist, and would doggedly identify possible solutions and explain them to readers. They would also highlight, again and again, the choices that government institutions are making to use—or not use—their power.
A chance to do that came in mid-February, when Christina Romer—the former chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers and, like Bernanke, a leading scholar of the Great Depression—outlined her policy vision in an interview with the website The Browser. “The most effective way to shake an economy out of a terrible downturn,” Romer said, “is an aggressive change in policy.” She called on the Fed to abandon “incremental change” and to embark on a “regime shift.” Romer’s comments were bracing; a high-level economic policy-maker was saying that the Fed is failing, and that its critics were right.
A press corps that embraces the full meaning of accountability—one that believes public institutions are capable of responding to public problems and demands that they fulfill that obligation—would have beaten a path to Romer’s door. But there have been no accounts of her remarks, no follow-up interviews with major newspapers. This debate, apparently, is over.
But our economic crisis is not. A grinding recovery from the recession appears finally under way, but the numbers of long-term unemployed are terrifying, millions remain in peril of foreclosure, and wage growth remains weak, as it has been for decades. Media committed to holding government accountable would be relentless in their search for responses to these challenges—and they would demand that our leaders do the same.