BENEDETTO: Journalists’ sob stories block reform

Press has become a predictable enemy of responsible budgets

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Now that budget battles have begun in earnest all around the country, those advocating spending cuts, Democratic and Republican, had better not expect any help in furthering their cause from the mainstream news media. In fact, the news media might be their most formidable foe.

How so? Well, now that we know the targets of the cuts, the news media, suckers for a sob story, are already throbbing with carefully orchestrated, heart-rending tales about what devastation those cuts will cause:

Children who won’t be fed; students unable to afford college; classrooms bursting at the seams; cancers that will not be treated; trains that won’t run; roads that won’t be built; families becoming homeless or freezing in their unheated homes; single mothers who will lose child care and job training; food that will not be inspected; water and air that will be more polluted; farmers who will be forced from their land; playgrounds, parks, museums, libraries and health clinics that will be closed.

You know the drill.

Even public radio and television stations, facing a threatened loss of federal funding, are using the airwaves to warn repeatedly of what programming might disappear unless listeners and viewers contact members of Congress and plead their case.

“We urge you to call your representative and voice your concern,” said a spot aired Tuesday on WETA in Washington.

All around the country, the news media are awash in stories of the devastation that local, state and federal budget cuts will cause. Advocacy groups out to resist the cuts are flooding editors and reporters with news releases that outline in graphic terms how bad the cuts will be for those served by their organizations or causes.

The following dire stories from last week are illustrative:

Los Angeles Times: “The president’s plan would give less energy assistance for poor households and less money for reducing neighborhood blight and beach pollution.”

Denver Post: “Some teachers likely would be laid off, colleges would get less money and Colorado would close four state parks and a prison as a result of the revised 2011-12 budget Gov. John Hickenlooper is submitting today.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Grady Memorial Hospital will cut 100 jobs and may consider trimming programs to help bridge a $25 million shortfall in federal funding.”

Boston Globe:“Funding would be eliminated altogether for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and AmeriCorps, the national service group.”

Wilmington News Journal: “Thousands of senior and low-income Delawareans would lose federal help paying their heating and cooling bills under President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012.”

This is only the beginning. Over the next several days and weeks, more and more stories on the hardships budget cuts would cause will become a staple of news reporting, making it even more difficult for budget cutters to stand up against the pressure. The steady thump of emotional media reports of people who will be hurt makes cutters seem callous and mean if they follow through.

Even Mr. Obama, who has taken heat from the press this week for his spending-cut proposals, is following this unfortunate script. “Are we willing to cut millions of young people off when it comes to student loans that help kids and families on their college education? … If we’re cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?” he asked rhetorically at his news conference Tuesday.

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