The Debt Ceiling Fiasco

August 9th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Now that the “crisis” has passed, a few words on the debt ceiling debacle and how the media – including the Journal – covered it.

I think it’s hard for journalists these days. Afraid of being attacked as too conservative or too liberal, of being pigeonholed or lumped in with the likes of Fox News or MSNBC, we sometimes bend over backward to appear fair by giving equal time and credence to what each political party or player has to say. And with increasing frequency, that attempt at “balance” obfuscates the big picture.

In a nutshell, that’s what happened with the debt ceiling story. Reporters were letting the politicians frame the debt ceiling debate with rhetoric, rather than letting history and numbers tell the true tale.

And in doing so, the Fourth Estate failed to hold congressional members accountable for what they were actually doing, which was bringing  the nation to the brink of default and simultaneously endangering the credit rating of the United States of America with their show of intractable ideology. Whatever the content of the final contortionist agreement that was reached in order to stave off the default, the atrocious partisanship that held sway over the last two weeks of non-Socratic “debate” was enough to hurt the country’s credit rating anyway.

Could there have been any other outcome?

As Standard and Poor’s put it in announcing its downgrade Friday, “political brinksmanship” during debt talks made the U.S. government’s ability to manage its finances “less stable, less effective and less predictable.”

The downgrade was inevitable after the GOP’s repeated refusals to seriously consider each proposal brought forward during the debate – even rejecting its own previous proposals when trotted out – and this was played out in front of the whole world.

What the public heard from its media was that two political parties were playing chicken, and that neither would back down, with no compromise on either side. But that wasn’t the case. (Just ask the frustrated Democrats for a run-down of the compromises.) What was also left out was the aforementioned history of debt ceiling increases in the past.

Here is the story that was obfuscated: All budget-related bills must originate in the U.S. House – not the Senate or the office of the president. About 25 percent of the House is made up of 60 Tea Party members – including New Mexico’s Steve Pearce — who were programmed to continually say no, even to Speaker John Boehner’s proposals. It wasn’t just Republican Party vs. Democratic Party. It was Tea Party vs. the Grand Old Party.

In essence, the Tea Party created the debt limit crisis. But that’s not what made its way to the general public, which heard repeatedly that both sides refused to compromise. Ruth Marcus wrote that “Lunatic Fringes Hold Us Hostage” in her column the Journal ran July 28. But it wasn’t until the debt agreement was announced in papers Aug. 1 (including the Journal’s front page) that the story fully was laid out. The Journal ran Kathleen Parker’s column as “Tea Is Tasting Decidedly Toxic,” and Parker, whom some would call conservative (but I would call a moderate), wrote:

Take names. Remember them. The behavior of certain Republicans who call themselves tea party conservatives are the most destructive posse of misguided “patriots” we’ve seen in recent memory.

Long-time Journal Op-Ed contributor Alan Reed contributed that same day with a much-needed lesson for readers with “State of U.S. Finances Start, Ends in House,” which blamed the media in part for contributing to the false impression that the president can “create jobs” or “direct the economy.” He wrote:

It would be mentally healthier for most Americans to stop expecting their health care, their housing, their peace of mind and social welfare to be “provided” by a president. Rather, we should take the time to scrutinize the financial condition of things and the decisions being made in the U.S. House.

During the debacle, the media came under criticism, notably from The Nation and Paul Krugman of The New York Times. They observed that the media was bending over backward to be “fair” in covering the congressional mess, and in doing so engaged in what I call “false equivalency,” which Paul Krugman of the New York Times in a July 29 column called “balance bias,” saying:

Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

One problem for journalists is that readers and viewers accustomed to ideological media (like blogs and Fox) are quick to attach “bias” to any phrase that seems to “take sides.” For example, how many readers of this column mentally thought “she’s a liberal” and pegged me with a bias when reading my comments about the real story being the GOP and the Tea Party rejecting even their own plans, creating a “crisis” that topped the news for two weeks? Is this my opinion or is this what happened?

Looking from across the pond, The Guardian in the U.K. Aug. 5 blamed the U.S. media for helping the Tea Party:

In a way, you’ve got to hand it to them (the Tea Party). They’ve managed to hijack the national conversation from job creation and overall economic health to one of deficit and default. This despite the fact that a recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that when asked to identify the most important problem currently facing the United States, more than half (53%) responded jobs or the economy while a mere 7% mentioned the budget deficit or national debt.

The Tea Party couldn’t singlehandedly swerve this minor league issue into a prime-time crisis of choice. They’ve been abetted – if, at times, unintentionally – by the US media.

The Guardian even did a study to back up its theory, looking at the “abundant” Tea Party coverage by American media from February 2009 to November 2010:

We found that, by and large, the Tea Party was portrayed almost exactly as they wished: as everyday Americans emerging from the grassroots who focused on fiscal issues and were an electoral force to be reckoned with. . . .

As the Tea Party movement struggled to gain political traction, Fox’s coverage was tantamount to a 24-hour televisual bullhorn, giving movement leaders and activists a platform to articulate their grievances without the pesky nuisance of democratic debate. (A Cambridge University thesis) got it right when they asserted (that) . . ., “Fox News provides much of what the loosely interconnected Tea Party organizations otherwise lack in terms of a unified membership and communications infrastructure.”

But mainstream outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times also played a vital role in publicising as plausible the pedal-to-the-political-metal claims that heaved us toward this fiscal cliff. And mainstream media outlets continue to play an important role legitimising Tea Party-proposed policies, often without placing them under the microscope of critical scrutiny. The media’s ingrained penchant for balance has also contributed to the Tea Party’s credibility. In “he said, she said” stories pitting Obama and the Democrats against Tea Party Republicans and their allies, extremist ideas were rendered tenable.

I find this line of the Guardian article particularly apt:

With ideological pit bulls lurking in the periphery, ready to pounce on journalism that whiffs of liberal bias, balance serves as a useful alibi for reporters. Rather than exploring Tea Party ideas in detail and projecting their down-the-road implications, it’s easier – and safer – to simply place Democrats’ comments on one side and the Tea Party’s on the other. The result is that, in a sense, a chill has descended over the press. . . .

The Nation’s blog, The Notion, came up with a similar conclusion in the story I mentioned earlier, a post by Ari Melber, who consulted New York University media professor Jay Rosen and quoted his response:

“Asymmetry in a highly contested situation fries the circuits of the press,” Rosen said via e-mail this week. “The bigger the stakes, the more dangerous it feels for reporters to reflect that asymmetry in their accounts.”.. . .

Rosen believes that the worst offenders in media literally care more about maintaining their innocence than their first obligation of accuracy. “Our press has an unacknowledged agenda: to advertise itself as an innocent player in politics, to show off how even-handed it is always being,” he argues. “It will put that agenda before truthtelling. But since nothing can come before truthtelling, the agenda stays hidden, repressed.”

To the paper’s credit, some fine Journal columnists stepped up to comment on the debacle, with business writer Winthrop Quigley weighing in first (Aug. 2) with “Politicos Lead Us Into Economic Swamp.” Saying he likes to keep his columns “even-handed, factual, balanced and low key,” he launched into harsh criticism (“ . . .enough is enough. It is time for a little indignation.”) and in fairness, he spread the blame around, saying:

The incompetence afflicts both parties and spans the decades. Bill Clinton can be blamed for beginning our journey into foolishly unregulated financial markets and for the trend of putting even the least credit-worthy people into homes of their own. George W. Bush charged the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the Medicare drug benefit to the nation’s credit card and left the bill unpaid when he left office. Faced with the worst economic collapse in generations, Barack Obama wasted the nation’s time and his own political capital on a health care reform law that does next to nothing to reform health care and signed into law a stimulus package that was so timid the minute its funding stopped, states like New Mexico faced budget crises and more unemployed people.

Now we have presidential candidates who, if one were to take them at their word, think nothing of blowing up the nation’s economy and inflicting even more suffering on small businesses and the jobless.

Meanwhile, Obama and the Republicans in Congress have spent the better part of the year jousting at each other over the national debt, something that is so irrelevant to today’s economic crisis that the time we’ve wasted on it borders on criminal negligence.

Journal political reporter / state news editor John Robertson weighed in Aug. 4 with an everyman’s view, writing as one who respects both the private sector job and government benefits that “have carried me and my family through,” saying he’s holding out hope the new bipartisan committee will come up with “a new deal that works.”

And the Journal’s Washington correspondent Michael Coleman focused on constituent frustration in columns over two Sundays (Judy 31 and Aug. 7), pointing out in the second part that “just when we thought the partisan cluelessness couldn’t get any worse” the House and Senate left town for their five-week recess without resolving the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget:

The FAA stalemate, based largely on Republicans’ displeasure with a new organized labor policy, threatened to leave an estimated 74,000 American workers — including FAA staffers and construction workers at airport job sites in New Mexico and around the country — without a paycheck until the issue was resolved sometime later this fall.

Thankfully, congressional leaders finally came to their senses and ginned up a plan Thursday afternoon that will extend the FAA budget until shortly after Congress gets back from vacation.

The FAA impasse is another example of how far partisan politicos will go to “win” in terms of ideology – in this case, reportedly to punish an agency for being unionized. As the Associated Press reported in a story that ran on A-3 in the Journal Aug. 3, Congress’ inaction threatened to deprive the federal government of $1 billion in uncollected ticket taxes – $30 million a day – if the shutdown had continued. This is money you and I pay in taxes when we fly – and our revenue-strapped government almost lost it all!

Coleman also wrote:

The self-inflicted debt ceiling debacle, during which Congress pointed fingers and played the blame game for weeks until finally solving the problem at the 11th hour, exposed Congress for the politics-first, people-second legislative body that it really is.

But inevitably, the conservative apologists showed up on the editorial pages again. Cal Thomas (whose July 25 column defended Rupert Murdoch as the victim of persecution from a hypocritical media) tried to deflect any criticism of the Tea Party in a column Aug. 5, and pronounced as good their responsibility for “a deal in which taxes are not raised and spending (is) curtailed.” He then said there should be no cuts to defense and that the Departments of Education, Energy and Housing and Urban Development should be closed. (He repeated his call for those departments to be cut in his column Aug. 9.)

George Will on Aug. 3, after railing against the “incompetence of liberalism’s legacy, the regulatory state,” wrote:

There are limits to what can be accomplished by those controlling only half of Congress, but the tea party has demonstrated that the limits are elastic under the pressure of disciplined and durable passion. As Tom Brokaw said in Washington on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, the debt-ceiling drama ended as it did because the tea party got angry, got organized and got here.

Even the Washington Post story the Journal carried on A1 Aug. 6, which announced the lowering of the U.S. credit rating, included an obligatory “Republican comment” amid the financial facts leading to the downgrade, this time from GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney who pronounced:

Standard and Poor’s rating downgrade is a deeply troubling indicator of our country’s decline under President Obama.

This was included in the story under the guise of reporting on “partisan wrangling” fueled by  S&P’s downgrade,  and its placement in the story made it appear that comment was more important than the fact that two other major rating’s companies – Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings – so far had declined to lower the nation’s AAA rating.

Interestingly, the Post’s own ombudsman posted online a call for improvement in his paper’s coverage of politics:

. . . The Post can’t be a liberal publication or a conservative one. It must be hard-hitting, scrappy and questioning — skeptical of all political figures and parties and beholden to no one. It has to be the rock-’em-sock-’em organization that is passionate about the news. It needs to be less bloodless and take more risks when chasing the story and the truth.

Where do I get this crazy, almost populist notion? From the readers who write to me by the score every day. Whether they are liberal or conservative, that’s what they want. That’s what they deserve. That should be, and can be financially and journalistically, The Post’s future.


Note: This post was corrected to read Fourth Estate (referring to the news media).

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  • Susan Clair

    Thank you, Denise, for the best explanation and exploration of the ridiculousness of the debt-ceiling debacle. Well done!

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