Media Needs New Voices To Cover Budget Politics - Norman Solomon

Tom Boland (
Sat, 2 Oct 1999 13:12:41 -0700 (PDT)

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By Norman Solomon <>   /   Creators Syndicate

After weeks of bitter partisan wrangling over budget issues, the federal
government began its new fiscal year on Friday. Such political
confrontations have become regular events in Washington. As strategists
work overtime around the Oct. 1 deadline, news accounts routinely provide
us with ping-pong journalism -- informing the country about the latest
shots that top politicos have slammed across the net.

Lost in the media's play-by-play are some grim facts. While leading
Democrats and Republicans fire off more rhetorical salvos, neither of the
warring parties wants to preserve even the current (woefully inadequate)
level of social spending. Neither party even has the decency to insist that
federal programs for low-income Americans be adjusted for inflation.

Meanwhile, the nation's military tab -- already exceeding three-quarters
of a billion dollars per day -- is scheduled to rise by more than $100
billion over the next five years. On Capitol Hill and in the news media,
there are some heated debates over exactly which jet bombers, battleships
and missile systems to build. But few journalists probe why Congress and
the president are so determined to fatten Pentagon pork while slashing
domestic programs.

>From all appearances, the current beating of plowshares into swords hardly
causes a ripple of concern in the national press corps. Instead,
corporate-oriented policy wonking is so pervasive that journalists and
government officials seem pleased to be speaking the same jargon while
winking at the same assumptions.

But when it comes to focusing on federal budget priorities, what would
happen if mainstream media outlets pulled themselves out of timeworn ruts
-- moving beyond the usual discourse among elites and opting instead for
some semblance of democratic debate involving the country at large?

In this hypothetical media world, it wouldn't matter how much big money
was arrayed behind the advocates of certain policies. Reporters, editors
and producers would conduct themselves as facilitators of democratic
discourse -- not mouthpieces for the most powerful institutions clustered
along Pennsylvania Avenue and Wall Street. To media professionals, the
human voices representing grass-roots constituencies would matter more than
any big-money amplification system.

"Dream on," you might say. Agreed, it's hard to imagine political media
coverage tilted by civic participation rather than capital accumulation.
But let's try.

In the midst of an intense national debate over federal budget priorities,
TV networks could broadcast live from food stamp offices, emergency rooms
at public hospitals, day care centers, school breakfast cafeterias, drug
rehabilitation centers and nursing homes for elderly Americans on fixed
incomes. Speaking as participants in national policy debates rather than as
subjects of fragmentary feature stories, people could talk about how their
lives are directly affected by Washington's budget crunchers and political

Instead of merely airing the conventional perseverations coming from
pundits like George Will, Cokie Roberts, Mark Shields and Paul Gigot, the
networks could bring us the views of Americans who are working longer hours
-- under more stressful conditions -- to make ends meet.

The new commentators wouldn't be old hands at sitting in TV studios. But
they could talk about what it's like to be a worker who's paying higher and
higher health-care premiums for deteriorating medical coverage. And they
could discuss many other daily manifestations of economic inequities.

The fresh policy analysts would have more than fleeting interest in
assessing the huge gaps between America's rich and poor. So, it wouldn't be
a one-day story when updated figures from the Congressional Budget Office
supplied more evidence that America's prosperity has been hijacked for the

Last month, the budget office provided some telling numbers. Since 1977,
the 1 percent of Americans with the highest income have boosted their
incomes by a whopping 119 percent. But when we look downward on the
nation's income ladder, the gains dissipate -- and then actually turn into

The one-fifth of the population with the highest income gained 38 percent
since 1977. The middle one-fifth lost 3 percent. And the bottom one-fifth
-- the people least able to afford setbacks -- actually lost 12 percent of
their incomes in real terms.

To the vast majority of the famous journalists who tell us the meaning of
the latest budget maneuvers in Washington, such figures are not of great
consequence. The renowned pundits are good at echoing themselves. Most of
the rest of the country is left out of the discussion.


Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."


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