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How the Press Fumbled the Stimulus

Mike Grunwald, a staff writer for Time and author of a book on the Everglades, could hardly have picked a better time for his latest book, an appraisal of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus. At first blush, one might think that few readers would want to revisit an enterprise that has been so roundly scorned by its Goldilocks critics—as too small by many liberals, and as too large and wasteful by all conservatives. But lo and behold, “The New New Deal” has caught on, a tribute to Grunwald’s deep reporting but also, surely, an indication of a sense among many Barack Obama supporters now rallying around him in the final months of a tough reelection fight that this law, like several of his other achievements, has gotten a raw deal and deserves a closer look.

The book’s careful reporting provides a useful check against many of the claims that will be surely made against the stimulus at the Republican convention this week (though Republicans have also already done their best to glean nuggets implicating Obama from the book’s 476 pages.) It reminds us just how determined was the Republican refusal to cooperate with Obama (a tack that is, to this day, being successfully spun as Obama’s having “gone it alone.”) It also provides some inconvenient (to the Tampa conventioneers) reminders of just how dire was the situation that gave rise to the law (guess, for one thing, who was pushing the largest stimulus package of all in early 2008 as the economy began to totter? Mitt Romney, a $250 billion package that, while weighted heavily toward tax cuts, was a sign that the businessman candidate was a firm believer in Keynesian jolts.)

But the book also offers a bracing reminder to those of us in the Washington press corps that the first year of the stimulus was not exactly our finest moment. To put it simply, the stimulus turned many otherwise sensible reporters into gotcha hounds. After all, there were billions and billions of dollars to be spent! That meant waste! And corruption! Except, as it turned out, there were awfully few great gotcha gets—a questionable scientific study here, a swimming pool there (imagine: spending public money on an inner-city swimming pool!) This was a credit to the administration, which put out the word early on that anyone spending ARRA money on frivolous things or otherwise wasting the dough would feel the wrath of Joe Biden, the program’s overseer. But it seems quite possible in hindsight that the administration, fearing a gotcha-happy press, erred too much in the direction of caution—and that some of the money trickled out too slowly as bureaucrats on down through the state and local level peered at penny under green eye-shades before spending it. (This caution could also be traced to the fundamental tension inherent in the program, between the administration’s desire to jolt the economy and to use the spending to lay the groundwork for long-term advancements in energy, education, and other areas, which called for more careful implementation.)  I discerned the risk of undue caution two months into the program, and penned a Washington Post piece making the only partly-facetious  “case for waste”—after all, I argued, this was a stimulus, and the money was supposed to be spent. If anyone pocketed money illegally, sure, prosecute them, but even if they went out and bought themselves a Harley, it was still economic stimulus. To the extent that I monitored the program in the months following, it was to try to assess whether the money was actually meeting its prime objective—being spent.

But most of the stimulus coverage took a different bent. One reliable tack was to criticize the administration for the glitches in the program’s unprecedented transparency. Its attempt to let the public track every dollar to the local level—an enormous undertaking—was ridiculed when it turned out that some recipients of funding were reporting nonexistent zip codes; what was obviously nothing but reporting errors flowered into stories about ominous “ghost Zip codes” that were swallowing money. Even more vulnerable to facile critiques was the administration’s earnest attempt to quantify how many jobs the spending was producing. This was on its face a hopeless endeavor—how was one to know for sure how many jobs a given contract saved or created for, say, a given road-paving firm? How to count seasonal jobs? How to count the jobs that were surely created or saved as the money circulated beyond the initial recipients? Reporters had a field day poking holes in the estimates, invariably with a tone of high dudgeon that overlooked the fact that the whole job-counting enterprise was simply a misguided, well-intentioned effort at accountability gone awry. Grunwald captures well how ARRA made a lot of reporters breathlessly imagine they’d stumbled onto a new Teapot Dome:

I’ve been a grouchy journalist for two decades, I’m familiar with the ethic that if you don’t have anything nice to say, put it in the paper. Reporters are supposed to follow the money, hold public officials accountable, and shine a light on failure; investigations that don’t uncover wrongdoing don’t make page one or win prizes. But something about the stimulus seemed to turn reporters into runaway prosecutors, desperate to pin something on their target. Another example from my overflowing gotcha file: A month after a Pro Publica article claimed the weatherization program was too focused on cold regions, a New York Times article was too focused on warm regions. “The nation spends twice as much on heating as on cooling,” the Times declared. Yes, and the program was spending twice as much in regions that relied more on heating—neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right.

Granted, journalism is just the first draft of history. But in this case, that draft was particularly imperfect, with lasting consequences for how the public came to regard a program that, while not designed as well as it could have been (I’ve written often on my nagging lament about what the program was missing) still did a lot more for the country than it got credit for. It’s a good thing, at least, that we have one journalist who went back to give us a vastly improved second draft.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis