False Equivalency in the Government Shutdown Story, Journal Style

October 7th, 2013 · 3 Comments · budget policy, economy, health care reform, journalism, role of government, tax policy, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Editors must work around the staff to distort local reality so it fits the Albuquerque Journal’s agenda. It’s a snap, however, when the issue is national. Witness the current campaign to persuade readers the federal government shutdown represents a split between Democrats and Republicans, the parties are almost equally to blame and they should negotiate a compromise.

It would take a book to point out that picture’s falsity and no doubt lots of volumes will deal retroactively with this extraordinary chapter in American political history.

Probably somebody will document, too, how news mediums reported the crisis but some journalistic failures already are obvious.

News people (and other observers) often apportion blame to both sides automatically; that can be an innocent logical fallacy, a dishonest political tactic or both.

James Fallows of the Atlantic reprimands what he calls  “false equivalence,” often born of unthinking centrism. “The essence of the false-equivalence mindset,” writes Fallows, “is the reflexive assumption that ‘reality’ is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert.”

I’d amend Fallows to sub “solutions” for “reality.”

But with false equivalency in mind, let’s turn to the Journal’s coverage and opinions on the federal shutdown, starting with its Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct 1 and 2 editions.

First the editors opted to publish news accounts of the shutdown from the Washington Bureau of the Associated Press rather than the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and McClatchy.

The latter are not perfect, but as regular readers know, AP Washington allows some of its “reporters” to editorialize. Like David Espo, whose shutdown story the editors ran Tuesday, Oct. 1; his take rarely diverges, I’ve observed, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s.

Journal editors used an AP follow-up the next day sans byline. There was also a piece on the local impact Wednesday.

The Journal most clearly displayed its hand, however, in the Wednesday, Oct. 2 paper. Its editorial and a syndicated column by Ruben Navarrette Jr. argued, as the headline on Navarrette’s column said:

Both parties to blame for mess”.

No, they’re not. Not equally culpable, anyway. But the headline perfectly expresses the Journal’s political stand.

Before continuing, let me confess discomfort. The Journal so interweaves its political agenda (favoring the more rightist segment of the corporate party dominates American politics) with its “journalism” that readers might easily confuse my disgust with the journalism as opposition to its politics.

It’s true, I reject Journal management’s world view and its politics, but my job here is to show how its editorial agenda washes over the opinion pages and corrodes the “news” columns in daily defiance of journalistic decency.

I’d have nothing to say about the Oct. 2 editorial, a classic example of false equivalence, if it didn’t drive the rest of the newspaper, its tilted opinion pages and skewed “news” columns. But it does.

Let’s return to the Journal’s spinning of the shutdown story.

Our statewide daily barely mentioned that if the House could vote freely on a “clean” budget bill it would pass with support from a significant number of Republicans as well as most Democrats. But House Speaker John Boehner, fearful of a Tea Party rebellion, isn’t allowing that.

In other words, this impasse – and its enormous cost – stems from an argument within the Republican Party between conservatives and rightist radicals.

(Not until Thursday, Oct. 3, did the Journal allow E.J. Dionne’s essay on some of this sully its pristine pages.)

Nor are the parties equally to blame.

In fact, most Senate Republicans want the so-called “clean” budget extension to pass and so do some House Republicans.

Wall Street wants it to pass because it’s hurting business.

So do a host of pro-big business lobbies because they don’t like the “uncertainty.”

(Remember when the Journal was always complaining that “uncertainty” was poison to bottom lines? Not now.)

Lefties Jeb Bush, John McCain, Karl Rove, and James Baker want it to pass.

As for the Democrats, far from being to blame for foot-dragging, they’re pushing a “clean” budget bill that represents a victory for the Right. As the Journal has neglected to note, it preserves the sequester and its drag on national and local economies!

So President Obama is standing fast to defend a short-term budget that will continue to hobble the recovery and the GOP is adamant that the economy isn’t hobbled enough!

(The House Tea Party caucus originally fought to kill or maim Obamacare, but in recent days, it’s reverting to the old deficit-cutting theme.)

Am I saying President Obama is defending a moderately anti-economic recovery budget while the GOP demands still more job-killing austerity? Yes, precisely, to remind you the Journal marginalizes such ideas; economic wisdom lies only in the work of dim Robert Samuelson and a stable of laissez-faire fanatics.

Nor did the Journal’s shutdown coverage improve later in the week. Sunday, Oct. 6, the editors used copy from Charles Babington and Stephen Ohlemacher, Espo’s AP Washington colleagues and fellow editorialists. Their account continued to strike the chord of partisan conflict.

Meanwhile, the Journal has radically downplayed what the Tea Party House Republicans are doing to the democratic process.

Obamacare became law through the legislative process. It remained law post the judicial process. And in the electoral process, the nation rejected a presidential candidate who pledged repeal and reelected President Obama of Obamacare.

Wouldn’t it follow that refusing a budget that doesn’t kill Obamacare is blackmail? That negotiating with blackmailers subverts the democratic process? No? Well, if not, why not?

The Journal finds that Q & A of little interest.

OK, alternatively, were the majority to accede to the Tea Party faction in the House, wouldn’t that mean minority rule?

The Journal won’t deal with that, either.

Meanwhile, where’s the reporting on how we got here?

The New York Times did some. Sunday, Times reporters traced an anti-Obamacare effort to “a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III” and the Koch brothers and Heritage and Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth and other fronts for their billionaire underwriters.

You will recognize them, I’m sure, as authors of propaganda the Journal often publishes (while failing to properly ID the sources) but whose shadowy activities it declines to cover.

But get this: the N.Y. Times determined the essential element of the plot was, “a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government.”

Yet the Journal insists the shutdown is about Democrats vs. Republicans.

Please don’t hold your breath until the Journal carries anything along the lines of the Times story. Heck, Journal editors are so deep into advocacy they never assigned a comprehensive story on the sequester in New Mexico.

Cannot have reporters concluding that austerity hurts the economy, can we?

When Mercutio said “A pox on both your houses,” he had a point. (No pun intended.) Having been run through with a sword, the poor guy was dying. Romeo’s pal was collateral damage in the long feud between the “noble” houses of Montague and Capulet.

Looks to me as if the Journal’s cursing both political parties has a different point – to obscure the actions of a deluded minority fueled by big money that are harming us all.

Obscuring reality? Not exactly why we have journalism, is it?

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland

    Republicans often draw false equivalencies between the management of the government and the management of individual households. Concerning the government shutdown, it is often portrayed as an intra-familial argument that could be resolved “if the two sides would just talk to each other.” This appeals to the mindset that differences of opinion in Congress are irrational familial arguments that could be resolved “if they would just talk it out.” Another false equivalency that we often hear is that the federal budget should be managed like ones household budget. Republicans argue that “when you run out of money, you don’t keep on spending.” This argument ignores the decades of research that have been done on Keynesian economic principles. Republican strategists wager that most voters are not college graduates, they haven’t studied conflict resolution or macroeconomics. Our corporate media make these misunderstandings even worse because they have abdicated their responsibility to educate and enlighten the voters to think critically on the issues.

  • Arthur Alpert

    Thanks, Roland, you make a good point, but may I offer two observations? One, President Obama also often equates federal and household budgets. And two, the list of those who abdicate responsibility to educate and enlighten is long and includes more than the “corporate media.”
    Arthur Alpert

  • Bill Tiwald

    The tea party and its GOP friends were wholly responsible for the government shutdown, I am so tired of Cruz (What’s his real first name?).

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