Mitch McConnell is no more credible or empathetic than Trump, but still gets indulgent press coverage

Now that Donald Trump is down and almost out, our major media news organizations seem to have finally acknowledged that nothing that comes out of his mouth can be trusted. They no longer consider him credible — not only about the election results, but also about the pandemic and its devastating economic consequences. His astonishing lack of empathy is now accepted as a given, as is the fact that he is exclusively interested in himself.

But what of Mitch McConnell? Yes, after six weeks, the Senate majority leader finally acknowledged the results of the election. But is what he is saying about the pandemic and the economy any more credible than what Trump is saying? Are his utterly transparent motives any less venal?

And unlike Trump, McConnell really matters right now. After singlehandedly holding up a second stimulus package for seven agonizing months (the House passed a big one in May) McConnell is suddenly responding to political expediency (Republican Senate races in Georgia upon which his hold on power depends) by allowing a vote on a wildly meager one.

It’s not Trump who is holding the country hostage to his whims any more, it’s McConnell. (Well, it’s always been McConnell, right behind him, backing him up every step of the way.)

But the press coverage?

The press coverage is everything that’s wrong with modern political journalism.

Rather than “take sides,” elite political reporters are focusing their attention on the game-playing, and presumptively afford both sides equal amounts of credibility regardless of the reality or the history. The “problem” is not caused by anyone or anything in particular, it is simply “dysfunction.” And the only thing that matters is movement.

Most of the articles about the stimulus, for instance, shed no light on how we got to such a sorry state of affairs, who’s responsible, what is actually needed or what the bill actually does. It’s a whole lot of both-sides stenography, murmurs about compromise, and speculation about what yard-line we’re on.

Congressional leaders try to clear final hurdles in sprint to finish coronavirus relief package,” says the Washington Post headline. “Final stretch on COVID-19 economic relief, but no deal yet,” says the Associated Press. The fine folks at Politico call it “the latest evidence Washington is broken: at the peak of the worst public health crisis in a century, the White House and Congress are struggling to deliver another round of relief.” On NPR, when Scott Simon asked senior political editor Ron Elving why the relief bill was taking so long, Elving replied: “I still can’t give you a reason, Scott, other than gridlock politics.” As time goes by, he said, “that just makes both sides a little less reasonable.”

Amazingly, it doesn’t even seem to matter to congressional reporters that McConnell has provided no cogent argument for why he’s blocking desperately needed aid. He doesn’t need to explain! It’s just taken as a given. As I wrote last week, the absolutely unparalleled, truly radical obstructionism by McConnell and his caucus has become normalized – even internalized – by the congressional press corps.

It’s not that reporters don’t know better. It’s just that whatever the facts are, they continue to shoehorn them into the age-old congressional reporting tropes about both sides slogging it out to the finish line.

The enabling by congressional Republicans of Trump’s four year reign of malign, anti-democratic incompetence goes unmentioned. This is the party that literally has no platform other than whatever-Trump-says. These are the members of Congress who lied about the “middle class tax cut” and defended Trump during the impeachment trial, against all evidence. Just two weeks ago, only 27 congressional Republicans were willing to admit to the Washington Post Biden had won. And even now, McConnell is trying to avoid a congressional vote to overturn the election results not because it’s ridiculous, but because if some members voted for reality it would infuriate Trump.

What political reporters need to do is shift some of their toxicity from Trump to McConnell and the party he now effectively leads. He’s not as public or impulsive as Trump. But he’s equally devoted to spreading misinformation. And while he is not as personally narcissistic as Trump, he is equally single-minded and devoted to a personal goal that has nothing to do with governing well: In McConnell’s case, as has been amply documented, that goal is keeping the money flowing in order to take and retain power for the Republican Party.

He is as shameless as Trump in projecting his own conduct onto the opposition. He declared on Sept. 30 that “The American people are still hurting. Layoffs are still mounting. Families need more help and the healthcare fight needs more resources. One side voted to supply all that help. The other side decided to block it.” He declared on Dec. 9 that “we can’t do a thing unless the Democrats decide they want to make law.”

His level of cynicism is almost hard to believe. As Timothy Noah wrote for the New Republic:

Meanwhile, a framework that McConnell proposed on December 1…. consisted mostly of business subsidies—including, in a nice touch of self-parody, an expansion of the business-meal deduction to 100 percent, up from the Cares Act’s already hard-to-defend increase to 50 percent in March. Before Covid-19, the so-called three-martini-lunch deduction was 30 percent.

At no point has McConnell made any secret of what his true intentions are. From the get-go, the only issue that has animated him has been his demand to protect companies from liability for infecting workers and customers. He warned of a “second pandemic” of “lawsuits against doctors, nurses, hospitals and brave business people who are opening up” – although that pandemic is entirely mythical.

His real goal has been obvious to anyone paying attention. Amee Vanderpool, who writes the “Shero” newsletter, explained What McConnell’s Corporate Immunity Really Means:

At the center of the McConnell induced stalemate is the concept of granting corporations total immunity from civil and criminal liability, even if they recklessly endanger consumers and workers during the pandemic. This would mean that no employee or consumer could sue a business for any intentional or negligent harm caused, even in the most egregious of cases. This is a protective shield, being pushed in Congress by corporate lobbyists, who are committed to ensuring the cash flow for corporate business at any cost, including ensuring that Mitch McConnell is richly rewarded in exchange for selling out America.

Sarah Jones at New York magazine asked Why Is Mitch McConnell So Obsessed With Liability Shields? Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University, explained:

“In most areas of public policy, there are groups that advocate for certain reforms,” he said. “Then they wait around for some crisis to come along where they can present their reform as a solution to the problem of the day.” With just such a crisis at hand, representatives for the hospital and nursing home industries have lobbied hard for liability protections at the state and federal level.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse offered his own answer to Jones’s question on Twitter:

Jeff Sovern, a law professor at St. John’s University, wrote in the New York Daily News:

The reality is that Republicans seem to be trying not to let a good pandemic go to waste by achieving long-held goals of insulating businesses from liability for their own carelessness. They are risking public health to do it. Congress shouldn’t let them.

In an outlier story from a major news organization, Sarah D. Wire and Jie Jenny Zou of the Los Angeles Times did an admirable job of describing how it might affect the public:

Frontline California workers could lose protections if Republican efforts to limit corporate liability is included in a new stimulus package, advocates warn.

But despite the centrality of liability to the entire drama, most mainstream media news articles about the stimulus negotiations barely even mention liability, and when they do, employ dry, utterly non-descriptive language.

Democrats were so overwhelmingly opposed to McConnell’s liability provisions that he simply blocked any movement on the stimulus bill at all for over half the year — until he realized that the two Georgia Republicans were “getting hammered” on the lack of federal aid. Then, rather than give up, he split off liability and the element of the stimulus he despises the most – relief to struggling state and local governments – into a separate bill to be considered later.

The need for a second stimulus has been manifestly urgent since the House passed its bill in May, but media interest while McConnell balked was minimal. It picked up in some places as a deadline approached, but even then, the broadcast networks weren’t interested. As Media Matter for America reported on Dec. 15:

And they pretty much ignored the liability issue:

When the networks got the chance to interrogate lawmakers, they questioned only Democrats, rather than members of the party insisting billions of dollars be put toward protecting businesses from being sued for mishandling the pandemic.

Andy Slavitt, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Barack Obama, laid out the compelling anti-McConnell argument in a tweetstorm in early December. It went in part:

Not enough attention has been played to the villainous role of Mitch McConnell and the Senate in this pandemic…

Congress has broken the most significant compact with the public in my lifetime…..

In failing us, the Congress has helped turn the country against one another. Has made us more cynical in our politics. Less trusting of our government.

None of those things strike me as things that bother Mitch McConnell in the least.

Even some Never-Trump Republicans have realized that McConnell is the big problem going forward. It was funny to watch New York Times columnist David Brooks the other day start by complaining that the legislative branch is so broken “it can’t address even our most glaring problems,” but ultimately find himself forced to admit it is McConnell who broke it.

It’s long past time for the Washington press corps to stop covering up for McConnell. But it’s particularly urgent now.


  1. If I had a billion dollars, I’d start a true news organization that tried its damnedest to not engage in any of the ridiculous behavior seen all too often in all news/media outlets these days…

    Idealism? Sure, but I’m sick and tired of the oh-so sloppy mess that is “journalism” that you so aptly call attention to time and time again, Mr. Froomkin…

  2. The only item I disagree with here is “It was funny to watch New York Times columnist David Brooks the other day …” There is nothing, ever, funny about David Brooks’s writing. It’s invariably an abomination.

  3. I recently watched Kasie Hunt and Jonathan Lemire carping about the Covid relief bill not having passed yet, smugly saying that nothing had been done because Congress won’t act without a deadline. No mention of the fact that the House had passed their bill months ago and had clearly been willing to compromise with Republicans ever since. All viewers got was the usual “pox on both their houses” garbage which leads to people like them puzzling over why voters have lost trust in politicians.
    As for the media putting responsibility where it belongs, not just blaming everything on Trump, I strongly believe that things won’t change until the media acknowledges just how extreme and obstructionist Republicans have been at least since the 90s. Clinton proposed a very credible healthcare reform bill with many things conservatives had previously supported but Bill Kristol convinced Republican leaders that it was to their political advantage to deny Clinton any win on healthcare reform. Suddenly “moderate” Republicans who had been saying our system needed serious reform did a 180. Bob Dole, the Republican leader in the Senate declared that our system wasn’t broken and refused to negotiate with Clinton. The media likes to pretend that kind of obstructionist behavior began with Mitch, not their hero Bob Dole.
    BIg Pharma got in the game with their dishonest, scary Harry and Louise ads and “experts” like Amity Schlaes who were willing to spread their lies. The media backed the Republicans, repeatedly declaring we had the best healthcare system in the world. Previously they had been reporting on desperate families who were deliberately bankrupting themselves to qualify for Medicaid because they had been denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition but suddenly that was no longer a problem. The obstruction and lies were despicable and resulted in our system continuing to ruin more and more lives in order to enrich for profit companies.

    And we should never forget that Republicans spent the 90s spending our tax dollars on multiple investigations of their crackpot slanders of the Clintons, including four investigations of the insane accusation the he had murdered his close friend Vince Foster. When he wasn’t charming the media Newt was busy creating nasty words and phrases for his foot soldiers to use to trash Democrats. The media either ignored what they were doing or far too often played along.

    Despite Newt’s despicable behavior and his blatant adultery the media continued to treat him as a principled man and a trusted spokesman for the right, repeatedly giving him a platform from which to promote his extremism and dishonesty:
    “During Barack Obama’s first year in office, Newt Gingrich was the single most frequently booked guest on NBC’s Meet the Press. He was the only ex–House speaker ever to be invited, and the actual Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, had a grand total of zero appearances that year. It was also despite the fact that Gingrich had already grown increasingly insane.’


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