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'Balanced' coverage ignores nine reasons why the shutdown is a GOP Idea

Ignoring, denying or minimising such evidence in the pursuit of false balance dangerously mis-represents the news.

Last Modified: 16 Oct 2013 09:33
Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
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"The Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan outflanked the GOP leadership, requiring GOP politicians to support a shutdown against their better judgment," writes Rosenberg [AP]

As the government shutdown drama unfolds, perhaps the single greatest asset that GOP has on its side is the so-called "liberal media", with its ideological bias toward "balance" that prevents it from honestly reporting that the shutdown is a entirely Republican creation—which would dramatically intensify the pressure on Republicans to fold. Indeed, the promise that Republicans could spin the media to shift blame onto the Democrats was a key selling point in Ted Cruz's two-month campaign to bully the party into following his lead off the cliff. If US media did not have its balance-at-all-costs bias, it's quite likely that the shutdown would never have happened in the first place.

In fact, over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story, "A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning", which traced the shutdown plan back to a meeting early in President Obama's second term, led by former Attorney General Edwin R. Meese. In any rational world, this would finally put an end to stories blaming Democrats as well as Republicans for the shutdown—but don't hold your breath. There were already multiple different bodies of evidence that Republicans were solely to blame. There were also devastating criticisms of the "blame both sides" practice from leading critics such as James Fallows, Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin

In support of their arguments, here is a survey of nine distinct bodies of evidence which "balanced", journalism distorts, denies, or marginalises while furthering the extremism which threatens to destroy us. Taken all together, they show how essential the "liberal media" is in facilitating the success of Tea Party extremism.

(1) The longstanding GOP fixation on shutting down the government. GOP politicians have been talking about a government shutdown since even before the 2010 election in a manner that portrays the shutdown as a positive good in and of itself. This was demonstrated quite clearly by Rachel Maddow, using clips of various Republican politicians endorsing the shutdown strategy. One example was Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, from Georgia, speaking to a movement conservative audience at the Faith and Freedom Conference, where he said: 

If we hold the line, if we get those courageous men and women to be part of our majority, if we say, look, we're in partnership with the American people, we're listening to the American people, this is what we're going to do. If the government shuts down, we want you with us. We want you with us. We've got to have you. 

Another was one-term Congressman Joe Walsh, of Illinois, who back in 2011 said, "We will do what we have to do to shut down the government, if we have to," and "[M]ost people in my district say shut it down. " (More complete remarks here and here.) 

(2) The GOP's creation of the shutdown crisis by blocking the budget reconciliation process. Since last spring, when the Senate passed its version of the budget—the GOP has refused to go to conference committee on the budget, thereby creating the shutdown crisis in the first place, since a conference committee is how Congress reconciles differences between House and Senate budget bills. Ted Cruz was the most vocal opponent of the normal conference committee process, taking to the Senate floor in late May to explicitly say, "I don't trust the Republicans" who would be appointed to the committee. His main objection was that a budget deal might also include the debt ceiling—thus getting rid of not one, but two chances for him and his fellow Tea Party extremists to create a government financial crisis. In a mid-July oped in Politico, Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray explained what was happening. Murray and her allies tried 18 times to set up a conference committee, and were blocked every single time.

(3) The emergence and evolution of the incoherent Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan to force a shutdown over 'Obamacare'. As opposed to the broader GOP interest in a government shutdown, the actual scenario we're now caught up in came from a splinter development, whose entire history is incompatible with the "both sides are equally responsible" narrative. The Ted Cruz/Tea Party plan outflanked GOP leadership, required GOP politicians to support a shutdown against their better judgment—and required them to aggressively blame the Democrats in order to avoid responsibility for their actions. This was a strategy to browbeat Republicans into shutting down the government—and it worked! It's too late now to pretend the Democrats did it. 

(4) The record of prominent Republican politicians and others who repeatedly warned against forcing a government shutdown—including many who are now trying to blame the Democrats. On the eve of the shutdown, September 30, Think Progress published "49 Republicans Who Say Shutting Down The Government Over Obamacare Is A Big Mistake," a collection of brief quotes from prominent office-holders, activists and pundits. There were 11 House members, including Paul Ryan, who said, "Shutting down the government puts us on the wrong side [of public opinion].The fight is on the debt limit," and 16 Senators, including Orrin Hatch who said, "[T]o expect the government to shut down is not the way to do it [get rid of Obamacare]," and Richard Shelby who simply said, "It's foolish". There were also six governors, including Scott Walker, as well as an assortment of other prominent figures, including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Bill O'Reilly, Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will.

Obviously, there would not have been such an outpouring advice to other Republicans not to shut down the government, if it were the Democrats who were actually planning the shutdown all along.

(5) The contrary historical record of some Republicans downplaying the severity of the shutdown. A contrary tendency among other Republicans is equally damaging to the "blame the Democrats" narrative—the tendency to minimise the impact and significance of the shutdown. As noted above, Ted Cruz and Heritage Action engaged in this sort of downplaying in the months preceding the shutdown as part of a strategy to pressure other Republicans to go along. But as the shutdown has become a reality, this narrative has become much more widespread among the GOP faithful, creating a tacit hybrid "it's-no-big-deal-but-it's-all-their-fault" narrative, particularly within the right-wing mediasphere, as summarised here at Salon by Elias Isquith ("Right-wing media on shutdown: 'Let the crisis continue'".)  

(6) The record of drastic Democratic budget concessions embodied in the "clean CR". The idea that Democrats are forcing the shutdown by refusing to negotiate presumes that passing a 6-week continuing resolution on the budget would give Democrats everything they want, and give Republicans nothing. This presumption is utterly false. Democrats have already agreed to accept a budget level in the CR far below the $1.203tn in discretionary spending that Obama originally asked for, and very close to the $967bn in the Ryan House Budget that Republicans wanted.  The exact figure is $986bn—8 percent higher than the House Budget, and 92 percent lower than Obama's budget. (See chart here.) Thus, by any traditional standard, House Republicans have already won, overwhelmingly. If Democrats really were the ones shutting down the government because they were unwilling to compromise, then they would never have agreed to a budget level so much lower than they originally wanted.

(7) The polling evidence that only GOP base voters are opposed to political compromise—and are indifferent to crisis. Polling shows that Democrats & independents want political leaders to compromise—and Democrats already have, substantially (see #5 above).  Republican voters now oppose compromise. Thus, it's consistent with their voters for Republicans to want a shutdown and for Democrats to want to avoid it through compromise. Examples include a November 2010 Gallup poll found that Republicans were more than twice as likely as Democrats to say it was important for political leaders to stick to their beliefs, rather than compromise to get things done. Combining data from that survey with one the following January, Gallup found that extreme conservatives opposed compromise 53-25 percent while extreme liberals supported it 52-17 percent.

More recently, a post-shutdown CBS poll, for example, found that 72 percent of Americans disapproved of the shutdown, but that 57 percent of Tea Partiers approved of it.  Likewise, Quinnipiac found 72 percent opposition to shutdown overall, but with Republicans supporting it narrowly,  49 - 44 percent while Democrats opposed it 90 - 6 percent , joined by independents at 74 – 19 percent. Quinnipiac also found that a solid 52-39 percent majority of Republicans supported defaulting on the debt in order to stop 'Obamacare'.  

Similarly, in mid-September, Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent called attention to a Washington Post/ABC poll, the internals of which showed that Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling by 61-25, compared to Democrats who favoured raising it by 62-31. More ominously, Sargent reported, "Among Republicans who believe not raising it would cause serious economic harm, a majority say don’t raise it by 53-32."  

This body of evidence is unmistakable: the GOP base opposes compromise and supports intransigence, even if it knows the result could bring serious harm. No one else feel the same way.  

(8) Evidence that GOP base intransigence drives policy. It's not just polling. By itself, one could argue that the evidence in #7 is irrelevant, since its generally true that public opinion matters distressingly little in our "democracy". The overwhelmingly anti-war Democratic Party base certainly didn't defund the Iraq War, for example.  Nor did it pass Medicare-for-All health care reform.  It didn't even get a public option.  In this case, however, the political power of the Tea Party base to drive GOP policy has been one of the dominant recurring political stories of the past three years. The political mechanism driving House Republicans to oppose compromise and force a shutdown is obvious to all—the threat of defeat in a primary in overwhelmingly safe GOP districts—while there's no such political mechanism driving Democrats to want a shutdown.  

There are far too many stories covering this historical development to link to any one of them. But when this broader historical development transitions specifically into the shutdown fight, there's freshman Congressman Mark Meadows' letter to John Boehner, pressuring Boehner to reverse himself, and use the threat of a government shutdown to defund Obamacare—a letter signed by 79 other House members, whom conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer later dubbed the "suicide caucus". The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza then dissected the caucus, geographically and demographically ("Where The G.O.P.'S Suicide Caucus Lives"), concluding, in part: 

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.

This is demographic/electoral framework within which the GOP base's intransigence has real political power, and indeed is driving policy right before our very eyes. Needless to say, there is nothing remotely equivalent on the Democratic side of the aisle. Pretending otherwise, as balance narratives do, simply transports us into a fantasy world.

(9) The framework of American legislative history. As pointed out by James Fallows in another piece on false equivalence two months before the shutdown began, "A False Equivalence Classic". His subject is the threat of debt limit default, rather than the government shutdown, but the difference is largely immaterial for the purposes at hand. Fallows noted there are two ways to report on the coming crisis. One is the classic blame-both-sides-it's-all-just-politics narrative.  The other takes account of actual history:

But there's a different way to describe the situation. That would be to say that the 44th president, like his 43 predecessors, believes that the United States should honour its sovereign debt, as part of maintaining the "full faith and credit of the United States." He also believes that the policy on government spending first applied under George Washington and in force since then should still be the policy now: once Congress has voted programs or benefits into law, then the government is legally and morally obligated to carry out those programs, until and unless they are repealed....

What's involved in telling the story the second way is actual journalism: not just giving a blow-by-blow of what happened, but providing enough context for people to understand the significance of what they are seeing. 

Conclusion

The nine bodies of evidence cited above are more than enough to do three important things: First, they conclusively debunk the "both sides are responsible" narrative regarding the shutdown. Second, they show how this "balanced" media framing distorts the news. Third, they highlight significant background and foreground aspects of the story that are being denied, distorted or obscured. 

What the evidence cited above does not do, however, is present a coherent counter-narrative to make sense of the crisis situation we find ourselves in. Dethroning the media's "balanced coverage" ideology  is only the first stage in a multi-part journey toward the sort of true historical self-understanding that a genuine democracy requires.

We still have miles to go before we sleep. 

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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