POLITICO’s Michael Grunwald: Partisanship & Journalism

By Ernest Britt.

On April 9th, the Duke in D.C. program was honored to host Michael Grunwald, senior staff writer for POLITICO and author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. Grunwald has written for many nationally syndicated publications, including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and TIME, and won numerous awards for investigative reporting. After reading his bestselling The New New Deal, our program was especially interested in the reporting involved to write this book, which provides a comprehensive “behind-the-scenes” look at the creation and implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

Grunwald began writing on the economic stimulus bill for TIME in a January 2009 cover story titled “How to Spend a Trillion Dollars.” What began as a short defense of Keynesian economics during a recession snowballed into a 500-page book, due to Grunwald’s interest in energy policy and his curiosity about what else the $800 billion stimulus package would fund. Although he writes on politics and environmental policy for a D.C.-based publication, Grunwald lives a few miles south of the Beltway – in Miami Beach, FL. He said his distance from Washington and its “groupthink” allowed him to objectively research the stimulus package without “being considered crazy” or writing the package off as joke like most Washington insiders did. When faced with questions about how else the partisan atmosphere has affected his work, Grunwald admitted he exploited partisan bickering, because conflict “makes good copy.” As a policy journalist, however, Grunwald said the way stories on partisanship are received is often discouraging – people are more likely to use his work for ammunition, not for information. For instance, Grunwald recalled how the Republican National Committee boiled his 19-chapter book into a 4 page memo of quotes that could embarrass the Obama administration.

Although much of The New New Deal focuses on how the Recovery Act was sold to the public, Grunwald called himself a “messaging skeptic.” According to him, because the U.S. faced double-digit unemployment when the bill passed, a trillion dollar spending package would be a hard sell even with the most brilliant minds in marketing at its helm. Instead of focusing on finding “the magic words” to sell a bill of goods, Grunwald said, the government should focus on passing bills that do good and help the American public.

In many ways, Grunwald’s “Hidden Story of Change” highlights the dearth of knowledge many Americans have about what the ARRA (and the federal government) does. Besides Solyndra and a few other small “questionable” appropriations, the media failed to cover the new jobs or the groundbreaking innovations the stimulus package funded. If the media is not covering the facts and the government is not messaging its actions well, it is difficult to imagine who will step in to tell the story of government better. Grunwald believes that the government should leave storytelling to someone else, and explained that today’s journalists should leave no stones unturned – and give the people what they want by telling them what they don’t already know.  Perhaps “sometimes, government programs actually work” will be this new, untold narrative.

DPR: How is the partisan atmosphere in Washington affecting your work?

To some extent, it’s good copy. I wrote a lot about the partisanship in Washington in the book, and I exploited it. I did a lot of the reporting on the Republicans right after the 2010 election, where I essentially got a bunch of Republicans leaders to tell me about their secret plot to destroy Obama before he even took office. This was right after their triumphant election, and they were feeling pretty good about themselves. So I was able to document the extent to which partisanship has gone completely nuts.

As a journalist, it’s a bit of a bummer. There’s a lot written about the problems of journalism on the supply side, and I think that’s definitely true. […] But where it’s frustrating to me is on the demand side. I find that in this book and a lot of what I’ve written, my readers aren’t looking for information, they’re looking for ammunition. This book ended up making a lot of Obama supporters feel good. The RNC devoured it within a few days after it came out and put out a memo of excerpts from the book that they thought were embarrassing for Obama. Some of them were crazy out of context, but some of them were legit and did reflect badly on the administration. But there wasn’t a lot of actually grappling with the ideas and the facts in the book, because everybody just wanted to fit it into their own narrative. To be honest, that is a kind of dispiriting part of being a policy journalist in 2015, is that […] people are only interested in  “Is it good for Obama or is it bad for Obama?” and that kind of sucks.

DPR: How can the government do a better job telling its own story to the public?

I’m a messaging skeptic. I know it’s unfair to a lot of people who work in communications and politics and strategy. Every time I gave a book talk, the first question was always ”Why couldn’t Obama tell the story like you did?” as if there was some sort of magic words that Obama could’ve said to get everybody fired up about double-digit unemployment in August 2010. Every public policy has a messaging component, and there is good messaging and bad messaging, but I’m very skeptical that the extent to which people seem to think there is a magic messaging solution to problems […] I always feel like it doesn’t really matter, you should probably just try to help people and see how that works out for you. And if it turns out to be bad messaging, well, at least you helped somebody. 


To see a video of Grunwald speaking at the Duke in Washington office, click here.

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