Blaming Republicans for the government shutdown: The end of false equivalence?
In the flood of news stories about the government shutdown, media critics started noticing phrases that irked them. For instance, an Al Jazeera America story that went viral lambasted The Washington Post and New York Times for saying things like Democrats and Republicans had "failed to reach agreement" during their "bitter budget standoff."
"This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism," Al Jazeera America's Dan Froomkin writes. "It is also a failure of democracy."
House Republicans refused to pass what is normally a routine federal spending bill unless President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats agreed to defund or delay significant parts of ObamaCare, a law that was passed more than three years ago by both chambers of Congress, deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, and at least tangentially endorsed by the American people when President Obama beat repeal-promising Mitt Romney last fall.
The result of this latest standoff over ObamaCare is that the federal government doesn't have a budget, forcing a major shutdown for the first time in 17 years. Froomkin urges his fellow journalists to stop pretending that Democrats are even partly to blame.
When the media coverage seeks down-the-middle neutrality despite one party's outlandish conduct, there are no political consequences for their actions. With no consequences for extremism, politicians who have succeeded using such conduct have an incentive to become even more extreme. The more extreme they get, the further the split-the-difference press has to veer from common sense in order to avoid taking sides. And so on. [Al Jazeera America]
Of course, plenty of liberal columnists for both the Post and the Times, including Greg Sargent and Paul Krugman, have been critical of Republicans since the very beginning. Now, however, each paper's editorial board is putting the blame for the shutdown squarely on the Republican leadership, too.
"The Republican leaders of the House of Representatives are failing," writes the Post, noting, "We don't come to that view as rabid partisans." Then it really goes after the GOP:
Republicans tried to block [the Affordable Care Act's] passage and failed; they hoped to have it declared unconstitutional and failed; and they did their best to toss Mr. Obama out of the White House after one term in order to strangle it in its cradle, and they failed again.
They're entitled to keep trying, of course — though it would be nice if someday they remembered their promise to come up with an alternative proposal. But their methods now are beyond the pale. [Washington Post]
The editorial board of The New York Times narrowed its focus to one man: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has the ability to bring up a "clean" budget bill — one that doesn't defund or delay ObamaCare — for a vote on the floor, where it would probably pass.
"Mr. Boehner could have stopped" the government shutdown, the Times writes, but instead:
He stood in the well of the House and repeated the tired falsehood that the Affordable Care Act was killing jobs. He came up with a series of increasingly ridiculous demands: defund the health law, delay it for a year, stop its requirement that employers pay for contraception, block the medical device tax, delay the individual mandate for a year, strip Congressional employees of their health subsidies. All were instantly rejected by the Senate.
Having let down the public, Republicans will now, inevitably, scramble to save their reputation. They are desperate to make it appear as if President Obama and the Democrats are the ones being intransigent, hoping voters will think that everyone is at fault and simply blame "Washington." [New York Times]
And lest you think it's only liberal columnists and editors: The Wall Street Journal's reliably conservative editorial board is also on record opposing the GOP's shutdown strategy. "Our advice is to give up on the impossible task of defunding or delaying ObamaCare at the current moment and focus instead on a quick if smaller policy victory."
All this said, the true "false equivalence" test will only be passed when straight news stories start taking a similar approach. But editorial boards are, at least in theory, the voices of their publications. And that makes these new editorials, in the words of The Atlantic's James Fallows, a welcome change.
"To anticipate the next 1,000 protest letters: the point here is not, 'the press should criticize Republicans,'" he writes. "It is that the press should recognize reality — and at moments when one party is behaving in extreme ways it should come out and say so, despite the powerful (and admirable-in-its-origins) aversion to seeming to take sides in political dispute."