Time's Joe Klein wrote on his magazine's Swampland blog (1/25/10) that the American public doesn't understand that the economy benefited from the Obama administration's stimulus efforts. So far, so good–it's true that economists generally feel that the stimulus bill had some impact in curbing unemployment, saving about 1.2 million jobs, according to one survey of the profession (USA Today, 1/25/10). The CBO had a similar estimate of stimulus effects (Bloomberg, 12/1/09).
Where Klein goes wrong is blaming the public's lack of understanding of the impact of the stimulus on the public's stupidity. The post, headlined "Too Dumb to Thrive," notes that "it is impossible to be a citizen if you don't make an effort to understand the most basic activities of your government," and concludes by suggesting that the United States has become "a nation of dodos." Klein also blames the Obama administration, which "has done a terrible job explaining the stimulus package to the American people."
When media figures mock public ignorance, it always strikes me that we have an institution whose job it is to inform the public–and they work for it. If the public doesn't know what it's supposed to, that tells us that our media system has serious problems.
Klein does note in an aside that Fox News has "misinformed" the public, but it's not just Fox–whose audience is tiny relative to the size of the population. And it's not really a problem of journalists messing up–the real problem is that they do their jobs the way corporate media expect them to.
Here's how you're supposed to report on the stimulus, if you work for a newspaper or daily TV news program:
Obama, GOP Spokesman Differ on Stimulus Results
That's from the Boston Globe (11/27/09), considered one of the most "liberal" corporate news outlets. The story that followed dutifully quoted the president claiming he had cut taxes and extended jobless benefits, followed by Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind) saying that Democrats had taken the economy "from bad to worse with their failed economic agenda and big government plans." Who was right? The story gave readers not a clue, allowing the Globe to successfully avoid taking sides.
Or look at the piece from CNN (1/25/10) that set Klein off, reporting on a poll that found "3 of 4 Americans Say Much of Stimulus Money Wasted." Is the public right to think that? The CNN story doesn't say–it's just telling us what we think, not what the facts are.
Now, you do find the occasional report on a study that finds that, in fact, increased government spending does seem to result in lower unemployment. But such stories are greatly outnumbered by the he-said, she-said of routine political coverage–few if any of which will refer back to the coverage that cited actual data about the stimulus program. Expecting citizens to figure out on their own which side's line of the day is more credible is like randomly inserting passages from The Lord of the Rings into a history textbook and being surprised when students think Gandalf was a real person.
Klein had a follow-up post (1/25/10) in which he said that Americans, i.e. Time's main customers, are not actually stupider than the next nationality, but were instead the victims of public schools, the reform of which has been blocked by "teachers' unions and other educational reactionaries." Nevertheless, he continued to blame "lazy" citizens who "don't pay any attention to the news" or who "get their information from sources that feed their prejudices." Ironically, the progressive blogs that he's presumably including in that category are much more likely to tell their readers what's actually going on with the stimulus–and include a link pointing to evidence–than the "objective" corporate media outlets that Klein wishes people paid more attention to.