Media Matters released a new study that tracked the amount of economists that participated on the three major cable news outlets, CNN, MSNBC and Fox during the debt-ceiling debate. You would figure the balance would be roughly two to one against economists who would be able to explain the debt-ceiling debate because cable news has become so tabloid-like, but if you thought that, you'd be way off.
A Media Matters analysis of evening cable news programs reveals that just 4.1 percent of guests who discussed the debt-ceiling debate were actual economists. This lack of credible economic experts helped create a media environment in which political and media figures could spread misinformation.
On August 2, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act, a controversial compromise bill that raised the nation's debt ceiling in order to avoid default while also cutting government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Many economists criticized the deal, saying that budget cuts would only weaken the economy and further drive up unemployment. But their voices were largely absent from CNN's, Fox News', and MSNBC's coverage of the debt-ceiling negotiations.
Of the 1,258 guest appearances during segments that discussed the issue in the month leading up to the debt deal, only 52 -- or 4.1 percent -- were made by economists.
I have no problem with activists and pundits being given air time for their opinions, but these shows market themselves as "news" and should have a responsibility to inform the public on very important topics. Economic policy is very difficult for many Americans to understand on a basic level even though the debt-ceiling travesty was by far one of the easiest concepts to grasp.
The definition of "economist" used in this study is broad -- it includes any guest with an advanced degree in economics or who has served as an economics professor at the college or university level. It also includes guests who have worked as government economists (such as Ben Stein, who formerly "worked as an economist at The Department of Commerce").
These results are similar to a February 2009 Media Matters report showing that only 6 percent of guest appearances discussing the stimulus bill on cable news programs and network Sunday shows were made by economists. At the time, the lack of economic expertise on television helped lead to massive amounts of conservative misinformation, including the widely repeated falsehood that government spending wouldn't stimulate economic growth and employment.
So even using the broadest of definitions to define what an economist is, cable news failed to provide a modicum of interest in having qualified people to discuss complex legislation.