May 3, 2012
Much of Washington journalism long ago abandoned any pretense of objectivity and instead found it more profitable to stake out ideological positions from which to tell larger “truths” about politicians and their conduct.
Notions about telling all sides of a story went out of fashion when news executives realized that readers or viewers were more interested in being told what to think, or in having their views reinforced, than in wading through detailed and often conflicting information. Witness Fox News or the Drudge Report on the right or the Huffington Post and MSNBC on the left.
This polarization of the news industry mirrors the deepening partisan divide in Washington, in which Republicans and Democrats and tea party members have given up talking to one another and instead do business by setting political traps. The era of bridge-building “moderate Republicans” and “Blue Dog Democrats” is almost at an end, with one of the last remaining prominent moderates, Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, retiring at the end of the year.
And yet, for journalists who still cling to fading notions of fairness and balance, it’s a bit unnerving to hear otherwise rational observers and respected lawmakers demand that journalists shed the last vestiges of objectivity and choose sides in the political warfare.
In a piece in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section last weekend, Thomas Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, two highly respected congressional authorities, wrote that the worsening political polarization in Congress is the result not of both parties moving to their ideological extremes but instead of Republicans moving much further to the right than Democrats to the left.
“While Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post,” wrote Mann of the left-leaning Brookings Institution and Ornstein of the more conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Their highly provocative essay, adapted from their new book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, was borne out of years of frustration watching a cherished political institution transformed into a legislative toxic waste site. After decades in Washington, Mann and Ornstein probably understand the inner workings of Congress better than just about anyone else.
And that’s why their remedy is so unnerving. They call for journalists to abandon their roles as impartial reporters and analysts and instead plunge into advocacy by siding with the Democrats and condemning the Republican leadership and rank and file.
Mann’s and Ornstein’s advice is like the sound of scratching your finger nails on a blackboard.
“We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story,” the duo of think tank scholars wrote. “But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public. Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?”
For journalists who long ago learned about professional ethical standards at college or on the job, and who cut their teeth during the Washington Post investigation of the Watergate scandal or The New York Times unearthing of the Pentagon Papers, Mann’s and Ornstein’s advice is like the sound of scratching your finger nails on a blackboard. It flies in the face of just about everything the profession stands for.
To be sure, journalists don’t always serve their readers by a false even-handedness. For example, in many ways, the Republicans’ healthcare proposals – turning Medicare into a voucher system and turning Medicaid over to the states – are far more radical than anything President Obama has proposed and could have far-reaching and potentially devastating impact on the elderly and poor. But a reader would be hard-pressed to understand that from some of the coverage of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan.
Similarly, when the Democrats unveiled a $1.2 trillion omnibus spending bill in 2010, journalists didn't exactly view the 1,924 page document as a ‘good read.’ The bill was loaded with juicy 'pork' earmarks, but journalists ceded the detailed analysis of the bill to think tanks and others who did the heavy lifting for them.
Like the Ryan plan, reporting on numbers, data trends, and economics is not viewed as a career booster. Among Washington journalists, covering politics – in particular the White House – is how you get invited to the White House Correspondents dinner and rub elbows with power brokers. As a result, more nuts and bolts reporting on government policy – including the unsexy federal agencies – takes a back seat to 'game changer' politics.
Political writers on the right and left typically operate in cable and digital echo chambers of opinions that comfortably square with their positions. In 2007 Washington Post economics writer Ezra Klein created JournoList for 400 elite liberal and left of center writers and thinkers to exchange views. But the forum was closed down because of controversial commentary leaked out in mid 2010.
Under the new Mann-Ornstein doctrine, neither of these highly important journalistic investigations would have been launched or deemed necessary
Republicans, not surprisingly, lashed back at Mann and Ornstein this week for being singled out for blame in explaining the unprecedented political gridlock and chaos in Washington when nothing involving 535 House and Senate lawmakers, thousands of lobbyists and special interest groups and millions of concerned and vocal constituents is clear cut or simple to explain.
Shortly after those “Grand Bargain” secret talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, collapsed last July, the two sides offered dueling and highly self-serving explanations of what went wrong.
According to the Republican version, Boehner and Obama tentatively agreed on a comprehensive deal to revamp the tax code, reduce the cost of Medicare and Social Security and slash deficits. But then Obama, reacting to pressure from congressional Democrats, pulled back at the last minute and suddenly demanded that Republicans accede to hundreds of billions of dollars in additional tax revenue. A frustrated Boehner no longer believed he could trust the president’s word, and he walked away.
Yet under the new Mann-Ornstein doctrine of journalists taking sides, neither of these highly important journalistic investigations would have been launched or deemed necessary.
The White House version was that Obama and Boehner did in fact settle on a rough framework for a deal, but it was all part of a fluid negotiation, and additional revenue was just one of the options on the table — not a last-minute demand. And while Obama stood resolute against pressure from his own party, Boehner crumpled when challenged by the freshmen and other more radical members in his caucus – and then came up with a cover story in order to save face publicly and with his troops.
Obama and Boehner missed the opportunity for an historic long-term deal containing elements of the much celebrated Bowles-Simpson presidential fiscal commission recommendations that would have put the government back on a reasonable path to fiscal soundness. The public deserved an accounting of who was to blame for the failure.
The Washington Post and The New York Times Magazine both stepped into the breach in March and provided detailed reconstructions of that period to show that neither side had fully and honestly explained the events and that the truth was more nuanced, complex and surprising than was first evident. Yet under the new Mann-Ornstein doctrine of journalists taking sides, neither of these highly important journalistic investigations would have been launched or deemed necessary.
A press conference organized by the Senate Democrats on Wednesday offered another insight into how reporters are subtly pressured to choose sides. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, discussed Democrats’ dispute with House Republicans over how to cover the nearly $6 billion annual cost of preventing a scheduled doubling of interest rates on federal college student loans on July 1.
The Republican House approach, approved 215 to 195 last Friday, would use preventative care funds for women and children in the Obama health care reform program to offset the income the Treasury would forego if the student loan interest rate is kept from rising to 6.8 percent. The president already has said he would veto such an action.
Senate Democrats would cover the cost of preserving the current 3.4 percent student loan interest rate by raising payroll taxes on wealthier private business owners – a method anathema to the GOP. The Senate is scheduled to vote next week on its approach, and Brown used a conference call with reporters to criticize the Republicans for provoking a fight that may block final action on a bill. The student loan program has suddenly become a hot political issue, with both sides attempting to curry favor with young people who have been saddled with huge debt and are having trouble repaying their loans because of a bad economy and the lack of good paying jobs.
When a reporter from the National Journal asked whether “it’s really wise to try and encourage student debt by actually having a lower interest rate” when so many students are not finishing school or finding work, Brown replied: “Well you sound like a House Republican when you ask a question that way. That’s what they would say – If they can’t pay it, just let them fall by the wayside.”