Media Malpractice on Debt Ceiling

There are specific patterns in corporate media coverage of political debates: Progressive ideas are generally marginalized. “Compromise” between the major parties is encouraged. Democrats should “move to the center,” which in practical terms actually means moving to the right.

All of these tendencies have driven the discussion over the federal debt and the debt ceiling. In the end, the political process has produced an agreement that can be cheered by pundits and analysts for adhering to media’s built-in bias for center-right economics and bogus ideas about centrism and political compromise.

Of the criticisms one can make of the media’s coverage of this discussion—and there are plenty—here are five areas where media mangled the debt discussion.

Why Is the Debt Ceiling Being Raised?

While some coverage correctly pointed out that raising the debt ceiling has always been a routine political maneuver, Republican rhetoric and right-wing commentary portrayed the current round as a consequence of Barack Obama’s “big government” spending philosophy.

What was rarely explained is the fact that raising the debt ceiling is a consequence of previous budget decisions made by Congress (New York Times, 7/28/11)—like a massive tax cut tilted towards the wealthy, two major wars and, most of all, the effects of a major recession.

As economist Dean Baker (Al Jazeera English, 7/27/11) pointed out, the debt “crisis” has very little to do with out-of-control spending:

At the beginning of 2008 the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the country’s most respected official forecasting agency, projected that the budget deficit in 2009 would be just 1.4 percent of GDP. The reason that the deficit exploded from 1.4 percent of GDP to 10.0 percent had nothing to do with wild new spending programs or excessive tax cuts. This enormous increase in the size of the deficit was entirely the result of the fallout from the housing bubble.

—’Balance’ Bias

Many writers have noted the partisan negotiations were presented through a distorted “both sides must compromise” lens. As economist Paul Krugman wrote (New York Times blog, 6/26/11):

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.

The failure to secure a deal was thus a failure of both sides to work together. In a subsequent column (7/29/11), Krugman pointed to an Associated Press headline (7/12/11): “Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.”

Time magazine (7/14/11; FAIR Blog, 7/15/11) responded to the breakdown in talks between Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner with a pox-on-both-houses attack on each party’s failure to compromise:

The Republican refusal to consider any new revenues, including making easy fixes to the tax code to close loopholes for businesses and other groups that don’t need public subsidies, is as recklessly absolutist as Democrats’ insistence that bloated entitlement programs are untouchable.

On NBC Nightly News (7/19/11; FAIR Blog, 7/21/11), Chuck Todd declared that “any sort of deal is putting pressure on the bases of both parties.” His evidence? A new poll that found support for raising taxes—anathema to Republicans—while a majority opposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The findings were inexplicably summarized by Todd as “a mixed political bag for both parties.”

The media’s aversion to pointing out when one side is more prone to obstruction or exaggeration than the other makes it difficult for voters to understand what is happening—and does little to dissuade lawmakers from engaging in similar behavior in the future.

Debate Way Off to the Right

Often lost amidst all the talk about rancor and compromise is the fact that the entire debate between party leaders and the White House has shifted well to the right. As Jamelle Bouie summed it up at the American Prospect’s blog (Tapped, 7/27/11):

Back in May, House Speaker John Boehner went before the Economic Club of New York to offer the GOP’s opening bid on debt-ceiling negotiations. His demands were straightforward: Republicans would only support raising the debt limit if it came with cuts that would exceed the increase in borrowing power. In his own words: “Cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given. We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions. They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.”

I wrote at the time that this was an “extraordinarily radical” proposal that would cost thousands of jobs and deprive millions of needed benefits while preserving huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Now, after nearly three months of Republican intransigence, that radical proposal is the template for the Democratic offer on the debt limit.

Given this obvious fact, media chatter about “compromise” seems downright absurd (Political Animal, 8/1/11).

The New York Times July 31 headline “In Debt Limit Showdown, Obama Edges to the Right” accurately captured this political dynamic, which had been on display for weeks. The article nonetheless asserted that

Mr. Obama, seeking to appeal to the broad swath of independent voters, has adopted the Republicans’ language and in some cases their policies, while signaling a willingness to break with liberals on some issues.

The assumption, then, is that “independents” really just want Republican budget ideas. There is no evidence that this is the case.

Finding the ‘Center’

There is a long-established pattern of corporate media advising Democrats to move to the “middle,” which in practice means shifting to the right. This has been a constant presence throughout this debate. With a very Republican-friendly solution perhaps at hand, some accounts are portraying this as a deft move to the middle by Obama. The fact that liberals are opposed to Obama’s proposals only serves to demonstrate that he is on the right track. The Washington Post reported (8/1/11):

Liberals were furious as the terms of the agreement came into focus Sunday, and yet another capitulation by Obama on economic policy threatened to further dampen enthusiasm among the core Democratic voters he will need to win reelection next year.

But for a White House eager to improve its standing with centrist independents who have been fleeing Obama, even a losing deal can be a winning strategy.

The Post’s Chris Cilizza (8/1/11) declared Obama a “winner” based on the same logic:

The president needed a deal of some sort to prove that he was capable of making the government work—even if it took until the 11th (and a half) hour to strike the compromise. Liberals are likely to be deeply unhappy about the nature of the deal, which includes no increases in taxes or revenue. But remember that Obama’s target constituency in 2012 is not his base but rather independent and moderate voters. And those fence-sitters love compromise in almost any form.

Earlier Obama offers that sought cuts in Medicare and Social Security were portrayed similarly. A July 25 Washington Post story “Obama ‘Big Deal’ on Debt a Gamble to Win the Center” (FAIR Blog, 7/25/11) discussed the White House offer of “trillions of dollars in cuts, including to Medicare and Social Security” in exchange for small tax increases.

Most polling on budget options shows little enthusiasm for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and more support for an approach that includes tax increases and other options for increasing revenue (FAIR Blog, 1/21/11). And polls also show more concern over jobs than deficit reduction (FAIR Blog, 9/17/10).

The White House and Democratic leaders are cheered for abandoning those goals, while the press explains that this is what “centrists” and “independents” really want.

Were There Budget Alternatives?

If this debate was really about dealing with the nation’s long-term debt/deficit issues, then the press would seriously examine a range of ideas for addressing these problems. But the most serious progressive alternative, the People’s Budget, was never given significant attention in the corporate media—in contrast to Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which, contrary to the rhetoric, failed to meaningfully reduce the deficit at all (Extra!, 6/11).

The corporate media’s abject failure to seriously examine a budget proposal that is more in line with majority public opinion suggests that serious dysfunction is not limited to Beltway political leaders.