As new financial data released June 3 revealed rising joblessness, the national media instead focused on Sarah Palin’s re-creation of Paul Revere’s ride and John Edward’s indictment for alleged violations related to his 2008 campaign. As these stories wound down, the media got a new gift: New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner admitted sending sexual photos via social media after previously denying doing so. This led to an all-out media blitz that allowed repeated showings of the offending photos, and hours of analysis confirming the hardly new perspective that men are dogs. Lost amidst the Weiner mania was media analysis of the slowing economy, or the departure a few days later of Austan Goolsbee, President Obama’s top economic advisor. The media’s prioritizing tabloid stories over critical economic developments impacting millions of unemployed and struggling Americans is no joke. It reduces public and political pressure for action to create jobs, and reflects a nation eager to be distracted from its most pressing problems.

When the Labor Department announced on June 3 that 13.9 million Americans are unemployed (9.1%), and that 4.8 people are competing for a single job, one would think this would trigger a national debate. But not in the United States. Our national media prefers to shift attention to tabloid-type stories that often, unlike economic statistics, have a sexual backdrop.

The media views the ongoing economic malaise affecting tens of millions of Americans as not only “old” news, but as information that is not conducive to people buying advertisers’ products. In contrast, the Weiner story offered juicy new updates and photos, an embarrassing press conference, interviews with the affected women, and the underlying sexual backdrop that encourages consumer purchases.

Unemployment and economic malaise vs. sex scandal? No contest.

Weiner’s Political Irrelevance

Lost amidst the media’s round-the-clock Weiner coverage is his political irrelevance. He is a politically powerless Democrat in a Republican-controlled House, represents a solid Democratic district, and the New York City mayor’s race that he supposedly was considering is not until 2013.

True, Weiner frequently appeared on cable news shows, becoming far better known nationally than other members of Congress. But whether or not he stays in the House has no impact on any national political issue, and few if any saw him as a frontrunner to become New York City’s next Mayor.

This distinguishes Weiner’s media coverage from that of the alleged sexual assault by IMF leader and presumed French Socialist Party presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Such coverage was no doubt driven by its tabloid elements, but the story impacted someone who many believed would be France’s next President.

And since Strauss-Kahn’s actions required him to resign as IMF leader, the story had international political and economic implications justifying extensive coverage.

The national media awarded Weiner’s tweets saturation coverage because there is no longer much a distinction between “serious” news shows and tabloids. It’s as if CNN, MSNBC and other news purveyors announced, “We are all tabloid journalists now.”

Why Constant Attention Shifting Matters

Nobody expects the national media to forego sex and violence for relentless interviews with the long-term unemployed, foreclosure victims, owners of failed businesses, struggling recent college grads, and other victims of the nation’s economic downturn.
But when the esteemed New York Times devotes the central front page of its Sunday June 5 edition to Sarah Palin’s Paul Revere tour, and when stories of Weiner and Edwards infidelities eclipse economic problems affecting the daily lives of millions of Americans, then it is hard not to equate the media’s preference for distraction with the bread and circuses of the Roman era.

Imagine if the media had given even half of the attention it gave Weiner to the June 3 economic report showing that employers added the fewest new jobs in eight months and that the alleged recovery is stalled. Such extensive coverage might raise public demands for increased government investment, and expose Republican efforts to trim public spending even further as economic suicide.

It might even create sympathy for millions of struggling Americans whose plight is ignored in contemporary movies and popular culture, and make it harder for politicians to cut benefits for the unemployed.

Republicans did not want to trumpet the June 3 report to avoid building support for greater public investment. And Democrats stayed relatively silent out of fear the report would make the Obama economic strategy look bad.

Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a frequent guest on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, appeared on Eliot Spitzer’s In the Arena CNN show on June 3 to downplay the bad jobs report. Goolsbee resigned days later, which would have been a major news story but for the media’s preoccupation with Palin-Edwards-Weiner.

This may sound old school, but doesn’t Goolsbee’s departure impact the nation more than Weiner’s tweets? This is the guy in charge of formulating the President’s economic policies suddenly leaving after a jobs report that President Obama downplayed as mere “bumps in the road” to recovery in a June 3 speech to Chrysler workers.

If the downturn was a mere bump in the road, why is Goolsbee out the door? That’s the type of question that gets overlooked when we are studying photos of Weiner’s underwear and reading transcripts of his tweets.

When the unemployed and economically struggling disappear from the media, they fall off the radar screen of many voters and then politicians. The media’s attention deficit disorder has a price, and it is paid by all of us.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.