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Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability Is the New False Equivalence | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability Is the New False Equivalence


John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other Congressional Republicans. (AP Photo/ Susan Walsh).

My new Think Again column is called “Who Speaks for the Jews?” and it deals with the results of the Pew survey and the dovishness/liberal-ness of American Jews, relative to their putative representatives.

My Nation column, Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts… is now (finally) unpaywalled. Continue to expect a not-so newsy press column as long as the editors continue to paywall it.

Now here’s Reed:

Saving Face: Falsely Balanced Accountability is the New False Equivalence

by Reed Richardson

Mark it down, the cartoonish antics of Republicans in Congress during the past few weeks have finally achieved what media critics have been trying to do for years—get a majority of the DC press corps to openly confront their falsely balanced coverage of a major policy dispute in Washington. It has been, by no means, easy. It’s taken outrageously divorced-from-reality demands about defunding Obamacare, irresponsible talk of default and the prospect of self-inflicted economic calamity, and poll after poll after poll after poll after poll showing public opposition to the GOP’s brinksmanship, but now the media has begrudgingly accepted the idea that one side might actually be more to blame. Indeed, we’re truly through the looking glass when Beltway Brahmin and devoted keeper of the “both sides do it” flame Ron Fournier writes something like this:

I believe it would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default. Republicans engineered the shutdown to protest a three-year-old health care law, knowing their defund-or-delay demands were unattainable.

But hold off on those Hosannas. For, whatever the public discourse has gained by this more honest and fair coverage of singular Republican intransigence, it’s not been matched in the press by concomitant demands for accountability from the GOP. This is perhaps not surprising. Decades of the media exercising just one set of journalistic muscles has left its others atrophied and increasingly incapable of rising to the task of speaking truth to power.

As a result, watching news coverage of the government shutdown reveals Capitol Hill reporters visibly struggling with how to “objectively” frame the obvious legislative misconduct of just one political party. Likewise, perusing a steady stream of op-eds about the debt-ceiling impasse demonstrates that most pundits literally have no concept of how to direct rhetorical outrage at or publicly apportion shame to just one ideology anymore. Thus, we’ve arrived at a surreal moment where the D.C. media’s conventional wisdom has moved past one version of false equivalence only to latch onto another—one that now doesn’t care who’s right or who’s wrong. Or, put another way: Yes, the Republicans are mostly to blame for getting us into this crisis, but all that matters now is holding both sides accountable for getting us out of it.

To execute this bit of legerdemain, however, the media has adopted a couple of subtle, intellectual cheats. First, it stubbornly clings to a blinkered, forward-only-looking mindset. This lets pundits float what sound like eminently sensible compromises while conveniently ignoring how they sharply conflict with the bankrupt motives and obstinate conduct of Congressional Republicans up till now. Thus, it is Senate Democrats who can be chastised in the press for not negotiating, even though Republicans have rebuffed their budget conference offer 21 times and passing a “clean” Continuing Resolution already represents a compromise by Democrats since it re-establishes sequester-level spending.

Second, and more disturbingly, the press has essentially accepted the House Republicans’ refusal to govern as a kind of unalterable, a priori condition, rather than a shameless failure by Speaker Boehner to prevent a rump minority from taking over his caucus. And by absolving the Republicans of any agency over their own extreme behavior, the press can then effectively spread the responsibility for fixing it to everyone in Washington, most especially President Obama. Indeed, the notion that it is now somehow the president’s duty to both extract concessions from Democrats and rescue Republicans from themselves is spreading like wildfire within the Beltway. And nowhere is this contrived idea more popular than over at the Washington Post.

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Whether it’s Steven Pearlstein or David Ignatius or Matt Miller or Ruth Marcus or the paper’s “On Leadership” columnist, the Post repeatedly drums out the beat that, while the Republicans are to blame, the president must nevertheless give up something so the GOP House leadership can “save face” amongst its members. Even the paper’s reliably right-wing hack, Jen Rubin, acknowledges that Republican “stupidity” and “unreasonableness” are the culprits behind the crisis, yet she too argues that Democrats just need to “save the country” by giving in.

That’s right, according to Jen Rubin’s blatantly disingenuous logic, getting Democrats to cave in exchange for something as simple as keeping the government’s lights on and paying its bills on time will surely convince Republicans to never hold the country hostage again. Sure, and if you believe that, I have a closed-down WW II Memorial to sell you.

The reality is that the Beltway media has come around to embrace the idea that Obama must compromise with Republicans because Republicans have come around to embrace the pet policies of the Beltway media. It’s no coincidence that Paul Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, which notably makes no mention of Obamacare, got such a warm welcome from the likes of the Washington Post editorial board. That’s because Ryan zeroed in on the same-old conservatives shibboleths that the DC conventional wisdom obsesses over as well. To the media establishment, it doesn’t matter how egregious the conduct that prompts them, the time is always right for “serious” discussions of “grand bargains” on things like deficit spending and entitlement reform. But don’t bother trying to recall the last time, with Democrats threatening to force a global economic meltdown, the press pleaded with the GOP to compromise on liberal policy goals like immigration reform, a carbon tax, or ENDA—it ain’t ever happened.

OK, so there’s no need to start writing eulogies for the Beltway media’s false equivalency just yet. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to note that even when the press thinks it isn’t falling victim to false equivalency, it still is. And even when it thinks it is demanding a fair amount of accountability from those in Washington, it still ain’t. Perhaps it’s expecting too much from the press for it to quickly overcome institutional norms that for so long have equated blaming both sides with fair coverage. But sadly, when one party is willing to routinely hold the very foundations of our government for ransom, we can’t really afford to wait around until it does.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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