Does the media care about unemployment?
Brad DeLong asks a good question:
The most astonishing and surprising thing I find about Washington DC today is the contrast in mood between DC today and what DC was thinking a generation ago, in 1983, the last time the unemployment rate was kissing 10%. Back then it was a genuine national emergency that unemployment was so high — real policies like massive monetary ease and the eruption of the Reagan deficits were put in place to reduce unemployment quickly, and everybody whose policies wouldn’t have much of an effect on jobs was nevertheless claiming that their projects were the magic unemployment-reducing bullet.
Today…. nobody much in DC seems to care. A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America’s sellers of labor power? I don’t know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.
And Kevin Drum follows up with his take:
I think there are two distinct issues here. The first is the government response to high unemployment, and on that score I think we’re doing as much as (or more than) we did in 1983. Interest rates are at zero, the Fed has vastly expanded its balance sheet, a $700 billion stimulus bill has been passed, and federal deficits are around 10% of GDP. That’s a stronger response than we had in 1983, when real interest rates were around 5% (and rising) and the federal government was running a deficit of around 6% of GDP.
But it’s true — or at least, it’s my impression that it’s true — that the media focused way more on economic hard luck stories in the early 80s than they do now. I have a strong memory of being practically bombarded with this stuff back then. Today, though, not so much. It’s not that coverage of unemployment is absent, just that it strikes me as much less urgent than it was in the early 80s.
If I had to offer a conjectural and fact-free guess, it would be that today’s journalists are less likely to encounter unemployed and low-income workers than their counterparts in the 1980s. Or, in other words, social distance might explain the difference between today’s economic coverage and the economic coverage of thirty years ago. And to make a slightly more founded claim, that social distance seems to stem from the relative “elite-ness” of journalism, at least compared to how it was a generation prior. From what I understand, journalism has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and has become less of a trade, and more of an elite profession with fairly high barriers to entry.
In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for a smarter writer from a good — but not great — school to enter journalism by way of a local or regional paper, work for a few years (or decades) covering a particular beat, and eventually graduate to the national news circuit. In this system, journalists were more likely to interact and cultivate relationships with people of lesser means — people more likely to live in public housing or face unemployment on a regular and persistent basis. And when these journalists were finally in a position to report on national matters, they carried those relationships with them, which influenced the tone and tenor of their stories.
By contrast, today’s journalism has taken on more of an elite character. Journalists working for publications like the New York Times or Washington Post are likely to have attended elite or Ivy League universities, are likely to have worked unpaid or low-paying internships (which tend to only attract higher-income students), and are likely to have spent their lives at a distance from the economically vulnerable. As a result, while they may care about unemployment and economic distress, their reporting on the subject might not have the same force or “urgency” that earlier reporting contained.
Of course, this is all conjecture drawn from limited information; I really don’t know that much about journalism as a profession, and this is a pretty sweeping assessment. However, it does seem like a plausible explanation, at least on the face of it. But if you have your own thoughts, differing or otherwise, I’d be interested to hear them.