Dan Froomkin nails "both sides do it" media coverage of the shutdown, by @DavidOAtkins

Dan Froomkin nails "both sides do it" media coverage of the shutdown

by David Atkins

Dan Froomkin takes on press coverage of the shutdown:

U.S. news reports are largely blaming the government shutdown on the inability of both political parties to come to terms. It is supposedly the result of a "bitterly divided" Congress that "failed to reach agreement" (Washington Post) or "a bitter budget standoff" left unresolved by "rapid-fire back and forth legislative maneuvers" (New York Times). This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism. It is also a failure of democracy.

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?

The truth of what happened Monday night, as almost all political reporters know full well, is that "Republicans staged a series of last-ditch efforts to use a once-routine budget procedure to force Democrats to abandon their efforts to extend U.S. health insurance..."

But the political media's aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, reading the news would not help you understand.

What makes all this more than a journalistic failure is that the press plays a crucial role in our democracy. We count on the press to help create an informed electorate. And perhaps even more important, we rely on the press to hold the powerful accountable.

That requires calling out political leaders when they transgress or fail to meet commonly agreed-upon standards: when they are corrupt, when they deceive, when they break the rules and refuse to govern. Such exposure is the first consequence. When the transgressions are sufficiently grave, what follows should be continued scrutiny, marginalization, contempt and ridicule.

In the current political climate, journalistic false equivalence leads to an insufficiently informed electorate, because the public is not getting an accurate picture of what is going on.

But the lack of accountability is arguably even worse because it has the characteristics of a cascade failure. 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.
It's hard to see how any of this gets fixed in the next nine years. As long as the districts are adequately gerrymandered, there will be little electoral accountability for the bad behavior of Republicans. If the press actually tells the truth about what is going on, a few more moderate voters will be swayed, but it likely won't be enough to boot Republicans out of the majority in the House and the right will feel more emboldened to fight against the "liberal media." Most of the pressure on Republicans will still come from the right, which will descend further and further into its echo chamber with little to no tether to reality.

This is why the parallels to the 1850s and 1860s keeping popping up. In a normal democracy, a delusional 35% of the public shouldn't be able to hold the other 65% of the country hostage. But if you gerrymander the districts enough, enforce a 60-vote threshold in an unrepresentative body that emphasizes rural states; if you allow enough corporate money in elections; and if you create an entirely separate media echo chamber for that 35% to live in, you just might get it done.

I don't see the mechanism by which any of this improves. The best bet is for activists in contested congressional districts to work their tails off to pick off as many seats as possible, while blue states make Obamacare and other liberal priorities work in order to create contrasts with red states. Over the next nine years, angry progressives need to focus on winning back statehouses so that the gerrymandering can be reversed in 2022 alongside major demographic shifts. We already saw this work in California.

If those things can take place, then we may be in for a very long nine years. But at least we have a hope of waking from the nightmare at the end. The only problem is how much damage the dead enders will be able to do in nine years. An entire generation's prospects will be ruined, and it will probably be too late by then to reverse catastrophic climate change.