Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is getting exactly the kind of coverage he had hoped for — and had every reason to expect — from a press corps that is incapable of holding the Republican Party accountable for anything.
After ginning up a fake political and financial crisis purely to confound Democrats, McConnell (as widely predicted by everyone who understands the Hill) came up with a way to let Democrats undo his chicanery rather than tank the economy.
But far from explaining that to readers and viewers, the corporate media is letting McConnell and Republicans share the credit for averting the disaster they threatened to cause. It’s like, as a Twitter wag put it, “Kidnapper, police help return abducted child to parents”.
I am so sick of the New York Times providing Exhibit A for me all the time, believe me. But under the headline “Senate Nears Agreement to Stave Off Debt Crisis Until December” on Thursday morning, Jonathan Weisman and Emily Cochrane wrote about both sides agreeing to “pull the nation from the brink of debt default” without any mention of how it got there:
WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans neared agreement as they met into the early morning hours Thursday to temporarily pull the nation from the brink of a debt default. The deal would punt their showdown on raising the federal borrowing limit to December after Republicans bowed to pressure to stave off immediate fiscal calamity.
With the threat of a default as little as 12 days off, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, made a tactical retreat on Wednesday and announced that Republicans would allow Democrats to vote on a short-term extension. He did not, however, lift his blockade of a longer-term increase in the debt cap, demanding anew that Democrats eventually use a complicated and time-consuming budget procedure known as reconciliation to lift it into next year or beyond.
Let me rewrite that for you:
WASHINGTON — After bringing the nation to the brink of a fiscal calamity by refusing to allow a vote on a routine debt limit increase, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell made a concession Wednesday that may allow Democrats to temporarily prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its financial obligations.
McConnell did not, however, lift his blockade of a longer-term increase in the debt cap, effectively extending his move to sow political chaos for Democrats into next month.
That line about sowing chaos for Democrats is pretty good, isn’t it? Well I stole it from, believe it or not, Jonathan Weisman himself!
Weisman was a central target of my first “Let me rewrite this for you” post last week, for a particularly overwrought, smarmy, inaccurate article that displayed a triumphalist delight in anything that can be characterized as a failure by progressives.
On Tuesday, however, Weisman had my sympathy – victimized by a terrible headline and an editor who failed to cut the first four paragraphs of his story.
Question-mark headlines are the worst, and this one, with extra unfounded hyperbole, was the worst of the worst: “As the U.S. Hurtles Toward a Debt Crisis, What Does McConnell Want?”
Shockingly, at least to me, after a useless four-paragraph anecdotal lead, Weisman actually answered that question! With admirable bluntness!
So let me rewrite that headline for you:
“McConnell Sows Chaos for Democrats by Creating a Fake Debt Crisis”.
And I won’t rewrite the story, I’ll just cut it (that’s the best editing). This is almost entirely as Weisman wrote it, just moving up the good stuff:
Two weeks before a potentially catastrophic default, Republican minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has yet to reveal what he wants, telling President Biden in a letter on Monday, “We have no list of demands.”
Instead, he appears to want to sow political chaos for Democrats while insulating himself and other Republicans from an issue that has the potential to divide them.
Sometimes, he actually goes out of his way to taunt Democrats. A day after Mr. Biden told Republicans they “need to stop playing Russian roulette with the U.S. economy,” Mr. McConnell, in his signature deadpan, looked into television cameras on Capitol Hill to “implore” Democrats “not to play Russian roulette with the American economy.”
With no overt policy demands to be met as the price for cooperation, Democrats say for Republicans, the chaos is the point — or at least a vague hope that the latest legislative crisis will somehow undermine Democrats’ ability to fulfill unrelated parts of Mr. Biden’s agenda, especially an expansive bill to combat climate change and reweave the fraying social safety net.
“I have learned over many years that we cannot negotiate over things like whether or not to destroy the economy,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said, adding, “American politics has gone crazy because one party has gone crazy.”
Not bad, huh? The real shame is that Weisman doesn’t remember what he himself writes — which is very Dean Baquet of him. As former Washington Post business reporter Christopher Ingraham tweeted: “political reporters write as if they lack object permanence, it’s so gd frustrating.”
This New York Times story on Monday by Katie Rogers and Jim Tankersley started off as a reasonably good attempt at not both-sidesing the story, extensively quoting Biden’s explanation of how the whole thing is a “Republican stunt.”
But then came the fourth paragraph
Despite Mr. Biden’s attempts to blame Republicans for the impasse, Democrats are increasingly confronting the possibility that they may need to raise the debt limit through the one legislative path that Republicans have left open: a process known as budget reconciliation that bypasses a Senate filibuster. Mr. Biden and Democratic leaders have chafed at that approach, saying Republicans bear a share of responsibility for Washington’s ongoing budget deficits and must at least allow an up-or-down vote, as has been the case under previous presidents.
The use of the word “despite” there telegraphs their assessment that Biden was wrong. Which he wasn’t.
So let me rewrite that for you
Supporting Mr. Biden’s view that Republicans alone are to blame for the impasse, Democrats are increasingly confronting the possibility that they may have to scramble to raise the debt limit through the one legislative path that Republicans have not actively blocked: an arduous process known as budget reconciliation that bypasses a Senate filibuster.
Both Sides of What Exactly?
This was a very confusing lead by Alan Fram of the Associated Press on Tuesday:
President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats’ push for a 10-year, $3.5 trillion package of social and environmental initiatives has reached a turning point, with the president repeatedly conceding that the measure will be considerably smaller and pivotal lawmakers flashing potential signs of flexibility.
Someone coming in late to this story could well ask: If Biden and congressional Democrats are for it, who exactly is he conceding to and who are the pivotal lawmakers? Are Republicans actually engaged in negotiations?
Of course not.
What needs to be clearly stated is that, while almost all congressional Democrats are indeed supportive (and all Republicans against it), Biden has been forced to negotiate with a few recalcitrant members of his own party.
So let me rewrite that for you:
President Joe Biden’s push for a potentially transformative package of social, economic and environmental initiatives has reached a turning point, as the concessions that Biden and congressional Democrats are making to a handful of holdouts in their own party appear to finally be winning them over.
The networks’ evening news broadcasts are basically hopeless when it comes to, well, anything that doesn’t involve weather, crime, missing women or two sides.
At ABC World News Tonight, apparently the “both sides” now are “progressive” Democrats vs. “moderate” Democrats.
So here was anchor David Muir, after a report about the shrinking size of Biden’s social and climate investment plans, telling White House correspondent Cecilia Vega:
As you know, both sides have indicated in their own ways here that they want to pass these bills. It would seem at this point it’s all about getting a number they can agree on.
But if by both sides you aren’t including Republicans – you’re basically accepting as a reality that Republicans no longer have any interest in governing — shouldn’t you indicate as much?
So let me rewrite that for you:
What a remarkable situation, Cecilia: Because Democrats have such a narrow majority, and Republicans are unwilling to even come to the table, Biden and almost all the Democrats in Congress find themselves pitted against a tiny subset of their own caucus, negotiating away what they consider urgent investments in the future.
I was not a big fan of a Thursday piece in the Los Angeles Times from Noah Bierman and Jennifer Haberkorn, headlined “Democrats are divided over how much Biden’s agenda should benefit the wealthy”. They didn’t give any weight to the argument that transformative social programs should be universal — and that if some rich people happen to benefit, they’ll pay for it and more through much higher taxes. Instead, they basically channeled “centrists” — who they inaccurately said were “led by Sen. Joe Manchin.”
But, I did like how they paused to explain the lay of the land, and why Manchin has so much leverage. They wrote:
Because Democrats hold narrow majorities in Congress, Manchin and another centrist, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, wield outsized influence, even though Biden and most Democratic lawmakers support the full $3.5-trillion bill.
I think “centrist” Democrat is an inappropriate label for Sinema, who is at best a loose cannon. (Margaret Carlson just described her as a “self-loathing” Democrat, which is more accurate.)
But I’d like to see a paragraph something like that in every story about the ongoing budget battle, just to give readers who haven’t been following the story a clue about what’s going on.
It’s a Crime
If you’re a journalist of any kind, you simply have to read the extraordinary indictment of crime reporting by Scott Hechinger in the Nation on Wednesday under the headline “A Massive Fail on Crime Reporting by The New York Times, NPR“. He writes:
When I talk about journalism as one of the most pressing racial and social justice issues today, people—even close colleagues of mine—often look at me quizzically. But after serving for nearly a decade as a public defender, I know well that every cruel and irrational policy of the mass incarceration era—policies that I saw devastate predominately Black and brown people in Brooklyn criminal court every day—was propped up by harmful journalistic biases and practices just like the ones on display this week from some of the most prominent media outlets in our nation.
News outlets’ missteps are “concrete and avoidable,” Hechinger writes. So, for instance, in both the New York Times and NPR coverage of FBI crime data for 2020, “the reporters focused on the sensational. Outlets prioritize clicks over nuance. Because many readers don’t look beyond the big print, these kinds of trade-offs can be consequential.”
Those outlets were far from alone:
The Washington Post, NBC News, The Hill, and The Guardian, among countless others, focused on the homicide spike not only in their headline but also in the reporting, while burying the relevant fact that there was also a decline in all other major crimes.
Hechinger also notes that the Times and NPR articles were “sourced exclusively from police or criminologists with pro-police bias and/or consulting contracts.” That’s really inexusable.
You should also read two excellent and important Twitter threads about the misreporting of the “crime wave,” from Alec Karakatsanis, founder of the Civil Rights Corps, and Judd Legum, author of the political newsletter Popular Information.
So while my intent here is typically not to revisit stinkers, here, appearing under the headline “Murders Spiked in 2020 in Cities Across the United States,” is how New York Times national reporter Neil MacFarquhar started his Sept. 27 story:
The United States experienced its biggest one-year increase on record in homicides in 2020, according to new figures released on Monday by the F.B.I., with some cities hitting record highs.
Although major crimes were down overall, there were an additional 4,901 homicides in 2020 compared with the year before, the largest leap since national records started in 1960. The significant rise has roughly coincided with the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
MacFarquhar went on to speculate about the reasons behind the increase, suggesting as possibilities “the economic and social toll taken by the pandemic and a sharp increase in gun purchases.” He quoted a police chief blaming “the fallout from social justice protests” and “the revolving jailhouse door created by bail reform.” He quoted another police consultant blaming “The distrust of police, the low morale among police, the fact that the police are being less proactive because they are legitimately worried about being backed up by their superiors” as contributing factors.
The one cause that jumped out to me as actually plausible was that gun sales spiked during the pandemic.
So I dug into the data. And although some FBI numbers are derived differently in different places, what I found is that 90 percent of the increase in homicides was due to the increase in the use of firearms.
The FBI’s “expanded homicide tables” available here counted 17,754 murder victims in 2020, up 3,363 year over year. It counted 13,620 murders by firearm, up 3,083 year over year. Murders with blunt objects, drowning, strangulation or asphyxiation were actually down.
So what does that tell you?
Let me rewrite it for you:
Major crime was down overall in the United States in 2020, according to new figures released on Monday by the F.B.I., but homicides were up dramatically, fueled by a 30 percent increase in gun murders.
The significant rise was seen in red and blue states, in jurisdictions that saw protests against police violence and those that didn’t, in areas where bail has been reformed and where it hasn’t, in cities with high police morale and low.
An obvious factor appears to be the 60 percent increase in gun purchases nationwide in 2020.
And my proposed headline: “Major crime down, but gun violence more deadly than ever”
CNN’s Jim Sciutto was among several reporters who jumped on a bogus poll number to conclude that public opinion has turned against Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. USA Today’s Rick Rouan wrote that “Respondents panned his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, with only 28% saying the withdrawal was the right move.”
But the Quinnipiac national poll was based on one lousy poll question that gave respondents an impossible and imaginary compromise option: “Do you think that the U.S. did the right thing by withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan, do you think that the U.S. should have withdrawn some troops from Afghanistan but not all troops, or do you think that the U.S. should not have withdrawn any troops from Afghanistan?”
The same pollster last month found voters approved of Biden’s decision to withdraw by a 54 to 41 margin.
Forbes “breaking news reporter” Joe Walsh did a whole, misbegotten story about how dramatically views have changed.
I’m not going to rewrite that for you.
It should never have been published at all.
This is thoroughly informative and enjoyable. Thank you.
The real-time recording of clicks looming large over the Post newsroom (and others) must drive this kind of misleading headlines and reporting.
Yup. It’s come a long way from when Washingtonpost.com executive editor Doug Feaver wouldn’t let reporters see their traffic reports for fear of it encouraging them to write clickbait.
I am going to be following you from now on. This is so sadly accurate. Thank you, Dan Froomkin.