The mainstream news media can be a powerful ally in the fight against budget cutting, and President Obama knows it. Too often, instead of challenging the president's sequester fear-mongering, journalists have amplified his voice as he pushes back against looming cuts to federal discretionary spending of about 5%.
With all the best intentions of looking out for the little guy, we in the news media are vulnerable to dramatic stories of people being hurt by forces over which they have little control. Whenever someone proposes to cut budgets, we run to those affected and report in vivid detail about the suffering that will occur if the money flow is reduced even a penny.
The arc of one such claim over the last week reveals just what the diminished ranks of reporters are up against when they deal with the statements of top government officials that they must cover. Last Thursday under the headline "U.S. schools brace for federal funding cuts," TheWashington Post summarized what Education Secretary Arne Duncan told them: "Schools across the country are sending out pink slips as they brace for the possibility of deep federal budget cuts that could take effect next week."
"There's no one in their right mind who would say that this is good for kids ... yet somehow it becomes tenable in Washington," he said. The article didn't quote anyone who might have a different take, just Duncan, who blamed it on the Republicans.
On Sunday, Duncan followed up on CBS's Face the Nation saying, "There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can't come back this fall." Three days later, reporters at a White House briefing followed up asking Duncan to name such a school district. He named one. When a different Postreporter checked, it turned out the layoffs there had little to do with the automatic budget cuts. The post called this "hype." Others might use stronger language.
Big national news media are not the only ones quick to fan budget-cutting fears. A front-page headline in the Omaha World Herald warned, "Furloughs would mean pay cuts for thousands at Offutt," a huge Air Force base there. The story included a similar lack of skepticism and was repeated in similarly localized versions all across the country.
Such stories have been commonplace since Obama grimly strode into an auditorium in the White House last week, stood in front of a carefully staged backdrop of uniformed first responders and condemned congressional Republicans for taking a "meat cleaver" approach to budget cuts.
"Are you willing to see a bunch of first responders lose their jobs because you want to protect a special interest tax loophole? Are you willing to have teachers laid off?" he asked.
As Obama expected, his words of woe were broadcast, printed and blogged, warning that these cuts must be avoided at all costs or the world as we know it will end.
Of course the cuts will have an impact on people employed by the government or dependent on government programs. However, journalists must be aware that claims of disaster are a decades-old cliche used by politicians intent on stopping budget cuts as much as by conscientious officials giving the public information it needs to know. Skepticism in the original reports is just as important as follow-up a week later.
Richard Benedetto, a retired USA TODAY White House correspondent, teaches at American University.
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