As the fiscal cliff approaches and the days tick by with no deal, President Obama is going to have a helpful ally: the news media. I don’t mean “ally” in the sense that most conservatives understand it—the media won’t consciously be doing the president’s bidding. What I mean is that Obama’s greatest point of leverage over Republicans is public fear and anger that, if successfully directed against his opponents, will force them to accept a deal he likes. The media love stoking public fear and anger. Especially local television news. And if the Washington (D.C.) market is any indication, Republicans are in for a rough ride.
The fiscal cliff has been a front-burner topic of intensifying debate on political cable channels and Sunday-morning news shows ever since the election ended. But now it’s filtering down to another level. As part of a reporting project that had nothing whatsoever to do with watching hours of NFL football, I spent most of Sunday glued to the television, flipping between Washington’s local network affiliates. The fiscal cliff was mentioned on all three local newscasts and even in some cut-ins during the games. That wasn’t the case a week ago.
If you’re in the habit of watching local news, you’re no doubt aware that broadcasters recognize no limit to hyperbole. If they’re not flashing the Doppler 9000HD and frantically warning of some deadly onrushing storm, then they’re running a scary package about how your dryer can kill you. That same alarmist tone is creeping into their coverage of the cliff, raising the specter of recession, layoffs, and gloom. If the country at large, and not just the political class, comes to regard the fiscal cliff as a serious threat to their own well-being, it’s going to be very difficult for the GOP (whose caucus is already fracturing) to continue opposing the extension of the middle-class tax cuts that the Senate has already passed and Obama supports.
Now, it could be that because Washington is ground zero for cliff talk; local affiliates here are covering the story more intensively than affiliates in Dubuque or Peoria. And the defense industry in nearby Virginia does stand to get hit hard by the sequester. But if it isn’t already, the cliff drama will soon become the major news story across the country. And unless the nation’s local affiliates cover it with uncharacteristic sobriety, it stands to become the next Y2K-type hysteria—and maybe worse, since Y2K never jacked up anybody’s taxes.