It’s a shame that headlines for straight-news stories about the stalled stimulus talks between Congress and the White House didn’t plainly say this before the issue was swamped by coverage of the major political conventions: “Democrats want to send American households more money; Republicans aren’t sure that’s wise or necessary.”
It’s a shame because journalists know that’s the truth but we have convinced ourselves that saying so might make us look biased. At least that’s the best explanation I can come up with for why we won’t just tell the darn truth.
It illustrates why holding fast to the idea of “objectivity” often makes it more difficult for our audiences to understand what’s going on. It makes it harder for the American public to decide who they should hold most responsible – who to punish or reward – for the latest congressional impasse and what role they can play to try to change things if they chose to try. With Congress adjourned and the election kicking into high gear, stimulus talks are unlikely to resume until after Labor Day. It’s already difficult for the public to make itself heard. Journalists shouldn’t make it even harder.
News coverage of the stimulus talks made it clear that the impasse means millions of Americans who may need financial assistance aren’t receiving it and may never receive it. That’s commendable. The stories of individual Americans affected by what goes on in D.C. is invaluable.
But the coverage did not do an equally good job of explaining why millions of Americans who may need financial assistance might not get it, leaving the impression that this is just the latest example of out-of-touch politicians not willing to do anything, even when lives and livelihoods are at stake during a once-in-a-century pandemic. It’s the kind of impression that can make Americans feel either cynical or helpless about the political process, a disturbing possibility during a particularly vital election cycle.
An example of such coverage was illustrated in a tweet that read “White House, Democrats trade blame on expiration of jobless benefits” for a Washington Post story that began this way: “Nearly 30 million workers have lost $600 in enhanced weekly unemployment benefits that have kept much of the economy afloat these past four months during the coronavirus pandemic, as top lawmakers in Congress and the White House remain at an impasse over how and whether to extend the benefits.
“Most of the last checks went out this week, but the program officially ended Friday [July 31], a day that Democrats and Republicans spent trading barbs over who was to blame for the failed negotiations.”
Given what we know about what Democrats and Republicans have not only said about the stimulus but have also done, it would have not violated the sacred cow that is objectivity – if objectivity is really about telling truths – had hard-news stories been written this way instead:
Negotiations over another round of pandemic stimulus are at a standstill because of different governing philosophies by our two major political parties, with Democrats united in wanting to send Americans more money while moderate and conservative Republicans and President Donald Trump are at odds about what to do.
If Democrats were in control, the $600 federal enhancement of unemployment benefits would have been extended in May when they passed a more than $3 trillion package through the House; states would have received additional funds to shore up their budgets to fund education and emergency services; and a freeze on evictions would still be in place. Liberal and moderate Democrats in the U.S. Senate are united on such measures as well. After talks began a few weeks ago, White House officials and Republicans suggested providing less money to the average American than Democrats have proposed.
Some Republicans balked at early spending efforts but compromised, paving the way for early rounds of stimulus that increased average personal income even during a period of historically-high unemployment. But they’ve since argued that additional stimulus might convince low-income employees to avoid going back to work, despite economic studies suggesting otherwise.
One of those Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, explained it this way on Fox News: “If you give people money and you make it less painful to be in a recession, we can stay in a recession longer.”
Paul and other Republicans also believe more stimulus would negatively affect the deficit, which has increased under every Republican president since Ronald Reagan and decreased during every Democratic administration during that time period.
We should abandon “objectivity” when it leads us to shade the truth rather than to make it plain.