Senate Democrats defeated a GOP filibuster of a $34 billion bill to extend unemployment benefits to 2.5 million out-of-work Americans on July 20, after Obama blasted the Republicans for blocking the bill.
Obama tried to cast Republicans in a hypocritical and callous light with his Rose Garden speech June 19: "The same people who didn't have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn't offer relief to middle-class Americans."
Of course, that was not only his spin on the issue, it became the media's too. At a time when many Americans are angry about the massive budget deficit, network journalists mostly ignored Democratic promises to pay for every bill and instead scolded Republicans for stalling the legislation and attacked the man who did it.
Republicans had filibustered the extension, demanding that the $34 billion be paid for - not as an attack on millions of struggling Americans. The media response was to attack them. Given Obama's $3.8 trillion budget, the GOP argued there must be something that could be cut to pay for $34 billion in benefits.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, released a statement saying the GOP wanted to see the unemployment benefit extension passed in a "fiscally responsible" way.
The news media continued their support for the unemployment extension in recent weeks. On July 4, ABC's Cynthia Tucker said on "This Week" "it is absolutely crazy that the Senate has refused to extend unemployment benefits." Back in March, when the fight erupted between Republicans and Democrats over paying for the bill, ABC scolded Sen. Jim Bunning for his "blockade."
On March 2, Diane Sawyer called it the "Politics of No," and said Bunning "kept thousands of unemployed workers from getting their benefits and forced some highway construction projects to stop."
So it was no surprise when Sawyer happily reported on "World News" July 20 that the Democrats finally succeeded, saying, "Help is finally on the way for millions of Americans whose unemployment checks have stopped. After two months of Republican delays, the Senate voted to 60-to-40 on party lines to restore benefits to 2.5 million people out of work at least six months."
On July 20, The Washington Post took at dig at the GOP's resistance saying the benefits had gotten "caught in a crossfire of partisan sniping about the deficit." The New York Times said the opposition would be damaging "to the Republican brand" back on March 3.
According to the Post, once Obama signs the bill it "would ensure that up to 99 weeks of income support would be available to a broader universe of jobless workers through the end of November."
That's nearly two years of unemployment assistance. The median length of unemployment is now 25 weeks, "more than twice as high" as any time in the past 50 years, according to Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. NBC reported that the average job search is lasting 35 weeks, "the longest on record."
Certainly many Americans are out of work through no fault of their own, but some economists have expressed concern that part of the reason for the "jobless recovery" and that some portion of the 9.5 percent unemployment rate is due to people choosing to remain on unemployment rather than taking work offered to them.
A JPMorgan Chase report released in March claimed that 1.5 percent of the current unemployment rate "is attributable to the extension of unemployment benefits past the recent historical threshold of 26 weeks."
Turning Down Jobs for Unemployment
President Obama had attacked conservatives for suggesting that some Americans are remaining on unemployment by choice. In his July 19 speech he said, unemployed Americans "desperately want to work" and are "not looking for a handout."
The national news media have stuck to that talking point, arguing that the jobless want to be employed. But some local news outlets have proven that wrong, finding individuals refusing jobs to stay on unemployment benefits in their communities.
NBC supported Obama's statement on "Nightly News" July 20 after the Senate "cleared the way" for an extension of unemployment benefits. Brian Williams teased the story saying, "But as NBC's Lee Cowan reports for us tonight from Los Angeles, what the long-term unemployed want more than anything else is a job."
Cowan interviewed one woman who'd been unemployed for two years and who said she'd much rather have a job than an unemployment check. But Cowan didn't mention the reports of abuse in the system by people actually turning jobs down or economists who say that happens.
On May 10, The Detroit News found job applicants turning down landscaping companies' offers of employment. Tom Corbett, a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor, told a Harrisburg, Pa., radio station that some construction companies in his state are dealing with the same problem.
Corbett said the companies told him some laid-off workers have refused work until they run out of unemployment checks, according to an AP story. In fact, Pennsylvania has reported more than $4 million in unemployment fraud, according to WGAL.com
Lancaster Nissan dealers expressed "frustration after several applicants were offered jobs but turned them down." One was a former car salesman who didn't want to lose his benefits by working.
"We offered him a job here, and he turned it down and said he'd rather stay on unemployment," dealership manager Rob Allen said.
Business & Media Institute adviser Prof. Gary Wolfram explained this phenomenon in an op-ed on March 17, 2010, as the media attacked Bunning for his filibuster.
Wolfram dove into the economics, pointing out how the incentives of jobless benefits can create more unemployment: "It ought to be clear that if we reduce the cost of becoming or remaining unemployed, then we will have greater unemployment. This is not rocket science by any means. Suppose that unemployment benefits were $6,000 per week and lasted indefinitely. Is there little doubt that most of us would choose unemployment?"
Unemployment benefits are far from $6,000 per week, yet as Michigan and Pennsylvania news outlets have found some people are refusing job offers in order to stay on the dole.
Bunning attacked for blocking ‘life support' for unemployed
The first person to oppose the extension of benefits, unless it was paid for, was Bunning. But instead of being hailed as fiscally principled, he was attacked by the networks, Democrats and other media.
New York Times congressional reporter Carl Hulse sided with Democrats about Bunning's filibuster back on March 3:
"Incensed over a decision by Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, to stand between jobless Americans and extended unemployment benefits, a group of Democrats took to the floor in a late-night session Thursday to hold Mr. Bunning's feet to the political fire."
Hulse mentioned Bunning's insistence that all new spending be paid for, something the Democrats claimed they would enforce (PAYGO), but never focused on their hypocrisy for trying to borrow the $34 billion to pay for extending jobless benefits.
Other reports including ABC's "World News" accused Bunning of "denying" people unemployment benefits and blocking "life support for the unemployed." CBS lamented that because the bill didn't pass that day (March 1) thousands of federal employees had to be furloughed without pay. NBC's report that night echoed CBS's concerns about highway projects "put on hold."
The network news media has practically forgotten to hold Democrats to their PAYGO claims. In the past three months only a couple of broadcast network stories reminded viewers the pay-as-you-go promise that has not been kept.
On "This Week" June 20 White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel claimed the Democrats were being fiscally responsible: "we have taken certain steps like instituting a pay-as-you-go rule." But argued that some things are emergencies and should be exempt.
In the case of the jobless benefits, the networks have sided with Democrats rather than criticizing them for their hypocrisy. Broadcast journalists have also promoted the Democratic agenda on spending and bailouts with little concern for the cost or federal budget deficit.
Like this article? Sign up for "The Balance Sheet," BMI's weekly e-mail newsletter.