NEW YORK – There were plenty of familiar faces on-screen during TV coverage of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan, people like James Carville, Laura Ingraham, Karl Rove, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Joe Trippi and Dick Morris.
What it lacked, some critics suggest, were people with real expertise in what the $787 billion plan will mean for the economy and for communities and individuals. In short, it was treated like just another political battle.
Of the 681 people who appeared as guests on a dozen cable news and four network Sunday morning talk shows in the three weeks that ended last Sunday, only 41, or 6 percent, were economists, said the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America.
That count alone indicates a lack of effort in tracking down what was most important about the story, said Erikka Knuti, the organization’s spokeswoman.
“Hearing whether or not this package is going to work is more important than who has the snappiest quip,” she said.
Media Matters didn’t keep track of interview subjects on the most-watched newscasts, the broadcast network evening programs, but the conservative Media Research Center did. About 13 percent of the people interviewed on economic recovery between Obama’s election and final passage of the bill were economists, the group said.
That’s almost one per substantial story, but Dan Gainor, vice president of the MRC’s Business & Media Institute, said that ratio was “appalling.”
Piling on the criticism, the Center for Economic and Policy Research said the media had “badly failed” to inform the public about what the stimulus plan means. The group said news organizations also didn’t keep things in perspective, focusing on criticisms of the bill that were a very small part of the pricetag.
To a certain extent, networks could be accused of unimaginative bookings, going to people they know very well. Media Matters counted 19 separate appearances by CNN financial correspondent Ali Velshi during the three weeks. The three people who opined most about the bill on Fox News Channel were regulars Morris, Rove and Juan Williams, the group said.
Even some of the economists used were familiar to viewers, like Web site maven Arianna Huffington, former game show host Ben Stein and Paul Krugman, columnist for The New York Times.
Two shows the group monitored, hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Campbell Brown, had no economists during the three-week period. By far, the most economists on any show (10) were on Fox’s new Glenn Beck show.
Ian Cameron, executive producer of ABC’s Sunday morning “This Week,” said the trend had less to do with unimaginative bookings than 24-hour cable’s need to draw contrast and promote verbal battles.
“On this debate, the sharpest contrast was in Washington,” Cameron said. “To some degree, there was more debate on this plan inside Washington than there was outside of Washington.”
Krugman has recently become a regular panelist on “This Week,” and New York University economist Nouriel Roubini was also booked for the Feb. 22 show.
Cameron and Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent, said that while the criticism of not having enough economists on screen to talk about this bill may have some validity, it was still necessary to report on the political battle surrounding it. If that battle hadn’t been settled, there would be no stimulus bill to talk about.
“Maybe we should be talking to more economists,” Schieffer said. “I’ve been a reporter now for 52 years, covered everything from hubcap thieves to arms control negotiations, and I generally have an opinion on whether the government is doing the right or wrong thing. This thing is so complicated that I’m not sure what is the right or wrong thing.”
The Media Research Center, in its examination of the evening news programs, believes that the news organizations are paying far more attention to economists who support Obama’s policies. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute recently paid for a newspaper ad listing dozens of economist who opposed the bill.
Media Matters, which would seemingly have the most hopes invested in seeing pro-stimulus economists scheduled, said its count shows them with a slighter advantage.
Whoever is doing the talking, Schieffer just hopes they know what they’re talking about.
“We’re all feeling our way in this thing,” he said. “What scares me is that people in Washington are doing the same thing.”
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