Moments of truth-telling in shutdown coverage, but bad habits prevail

Kevin McCarthy

For a while there, it looked like the facts were so overwhelmingly obvious that the Washington press corps was going to put aside its chronic both-sidesing and simply state the truth: That extremist Republicans and their enablers, chief among them Kevin Mcarthy, are uniquely responsible for what appears to be an imminent and humiliating government shutdown.

But then they found a way to blame both sides after all.

It’s enough to make your head spin — and shake.

For political reporters, the default for any conflict in Congress is to blame not one side or the other, but “Congress.” So consider how, two weeks ago, New York Times senior congressional correspondent Carl Hulse’s story bore the print-edition headline “Congress Falters as Shutdown Looms.”

Hulse  wrote that “Good intentions have been chewed up in the political machinery, lost to intense partisanship.” In other words, both sides were out of control.

But then, in a news analysis on Sept. 23, headlined “The Wrecking-Ball Caucus: How the Far Right Brought Washington to Its Knees,” that self-same Hulse was making it gloriously clear where the fault lay, and it wasn’t with the Democrats.

Washington is in the grip of an ultraconservative minority that sees the federal government as a threat to the republic, a dangerous monolith to be broken apart with little regard for the consequences. They have styled themselves as a wrecking crew aimed at the nation’s institutions on a variety of fronts.

Case closed? Hardly!

On Thursday, under the headline “Border Takes Center Stage as McCarthy Seeks to Shift Shutdown Blame,” Hulse and two coauthors were back to describing the shutdown drama like a cage fight.

Yes, they acknowledged that the hard-right members were the “instigators,” but McCarthy, they wrote obediently, was “attempting to shift the debate from an issue that has divided members of his party toward one where they are united — and where they believe Mr. Biden and his party are vulnerable.”

And Michael Shear wrote a whole piece about how Biden is trying to blame the shutdown on Republican infighting and dysfunction, without saying whether or not Biden was right. Which, of course, he is.

For instance, Shear depicted a series of incontrovertible facts the White House is encouraging allies to stress as some kind of White House spin:

First, they are told to repeatedly remind voters that Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy shook hands on a spending agreement months ago that was supposed to avert a shutdown. The speaker, under pressure from his conservative members, later reneged on the deal.

Second, Biden allies are urged to note how isolated Mr. McCarthy is. Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have urged their House colleagues to accept a short-term agreement to keep the government open.

Those are facts, not spin.

And the New York Times was hardly alone in its shifting tone.

The September 19 Washington Post headline, “House flounders as GOP fails to appease hard-right members on funding,” was admirable in its forthrightness. Marianna Sotomayor, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Paul Kane and Amy B Wang wrote about the “House Republicans’ inability to find agreement on even a stopgap funding bill that is destined to fail in the Senate again.”

But several days later, after the Senate had introduced bipartisan — yes, bipartisan! — legislation to keep the government open, that was the entree Jeff Stein and Sotomayor needed to turn it into a two-sided battle between the House and Senate, with “each looking to jam their preferred legislation through the other chamber in a risky game of brinkmanship.”

They also basically scolded the GOP for not failing to recommend cuts in Medicare and Social Security, but don’t get me going on that.

Associated Press coverage had gotten pretty blunt by Sept. 21: “Hard-right Republicans push dangerously closer to a disruptive federal shutdown“.

But by Sept. 27, it was back to normal: “Congress says it wants to avoid a shutdown. But the House and Senate are moving even further apart“.

A Grim History of Gutlessness

Indeed, as long as there have been government shutdowns and debt ceiling hijinks, there have been pusillanimous journalists afraid to actually call out who was responsible.

Political reporters are comfortable blaming both sides, or writing about how both sides are trying to blame each other. They’re not comfortable saying who’s to blame, even when it’s obvious.

History clearly shows that Democrats don’t shut down the government. Republicans do — Republicans making outrageous demands and being perfectly willing to see the government grind to a halt.

But according to our finest political reporters, it’s always a “bitterly divided” Congress that has “failed to reach agreement”.

I wrote about this 10 years ago, when it was already standard operating procedure. I still stand by this particular paragraph:

When the political leadership of this country is incapable of even keeping the government open, a political course correction is in order. But how can democracy self-correct if the public does not understand where the problem lies? And where will the pressure for change come from if journalists do not hold the responsible parties accountable?

Or, as Vox writer Ian Milhiser tweeted on Thursday:

One reason why it is important that journalists clearly and accurately convey that a shutdown caused by House Republicans is, in fact, caused by House Republicans is that House Republicans are likely to keep the government shut down until enough people get pissed at them.

Politico published one of the most wonderfully clueless quotes from a Republican on Sept. 20:

“We always get the blame,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a senior appropriator. “Name one time that we’ve shut the government down and we haven’t got the blame.”

But it isn’t so. And it may not be so, once again.

Signs are that the public doesn’t know who’s responsible. A poll  conducted by Monmouth University last week, in which 48 percent of American said they would hold Biden or the Democrats in Congress responsible for a shutdown, compared to 43 percent who would blame Republicans in Congress.

In an article for Media Matters on Thursday, Zachary Pleat called attention to numerous headlines ascribing the problem to Congress rather than Republican dysfunction. Among them:

  • Reuters: “Shutdown looms as US Senate, House take dueling tacks on funding.” [Reuters, 9/26/23]
  • WSJ: “Standoff in Congress brings government to brink of shutdown.” [The Wall Street Journal, 9/27/23]

And the network news – the news source most likely to reach low-information voters – is all over the place.

ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir was blunt on Thursday. “Republicans cannot agree,” he said.

But on Wednesday’s NBC Nightly News, Capitol Hill correspondent Garrett Haacke incorrectly blamed the shutdown on the lack of “any kind of combined or bipartisan effort all.” In fact, the Senate proposal is widely bipartisan.

And on the CBS Evening News on Thursday, correspondent Nikole Killion essentially blamed both sides, which she described as advancing “separate short-term funding packages.”

“Shutdown looms” is the message most Americans are hearing. What they should be hearing is that extremist Republicans with unreasonable demands are perfectly happy to kneecap the U.S. government as long as they have the power to do so.


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