What The Media Won’t — Or Can’t — Tell You About The Jobs Crisis

September 6, 2011 2:10 a.m.

Everyone knows the unemployment rate is painfully high and not falling. Friday’s monthly jobs report from the Department of Labor put a cruel point on this fact: In August, job gains in the private sector were entirely offset by job losses in the public sector, netting precisely zero new payrolls for the month.

Zero is a striking number in this context, but it’s also a bit misleading. For instance, private sector job creation appeared artificially lower than it should have because 45,000 Verizon workers were on strike when the survey was taken. What happened in August has been happening for months, as policy makers allow federal spending to fall and, thus, for government jobs to disappear, placing a significant drag on overall growth.

Experts disagree to some extent over the precise measures lawmakers should take to stanch this bleeding — but overwhelmingly they agree it can be stanched. Their recommendations give the lie to the idea — pushed by conservatives and adopted by some Democrats — that government is growing out of control and deficits need to be addressed urgently. And yet nearly all major news outlets ignore, or bury this fact — indeed, most reports of this month’s jobs figures place no emphasis on the contraction of the public sector, and the implications thereof.

Here’s a sample.The New York Timesinitial report didn’t address the private/public disparity at all. Instead it included a bleak political prognosis for new stimulus measures, and only eleven paragraphs in did it give a brief mention of the fact that economists think this is the right remedy.

The poor showing is likely to be seized on by President Obama in his prime-time address to Congress on Thursday as proof that bolder government action is needed to create jobs.

There is considerable skepticism that any ambitious plan to bolster job growth would be politically feasible. But several economists said that given the fragility of the recovery, the payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits, both set to expire at the end of the year, should be renewed.

Likewise, The Washington Post explained that the poor figures make it more likely that the Federal Reserve will loosen monetary policy, but said nothing about why the economy has frozen, and what’s weighing against growth. It uncritically quotes House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) arguing in favor of the contractionary policies that are causing the problem.

The open question is whether Republicans will go along with the plans, given the atmosphere of ill will between the two parties and their diametrically opposite approaches to trying to strengthen the economy.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) responded to the report Friday by saying that “Republicans are listening and focusing on removing barriers to job growth, whether it’s eliminating unnecessary regulations that drive up prices or stopping Washington from spending money it doesn’t have.”

Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal both noted late in their articles that the zero figure is the result of a shrinking public sector. Both treat the implications as a matter of partisan disagreement.

This is a predictable symptom of the culture of political reporting — each side of a policy disagreement should be noted,and possibly explained, but never evaluated, even when accompanied by clear indicators like the August labor figures.

That sort of analysis exists elsewhere in abundance, but the the most venerable institutions of the national media have largely buried what is perhaps the single most important piece of data about the jobs report.

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