New Voices Needed in Coverage of Budget Politics

After weeks of bitter partisan wrangling over budget issues, the federal government began its new fiscal year on October 1. Such political confrontations have become routine in Washington. As strategists work overtime, news accounts 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 calculators.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 wealthy.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 losses.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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