In Sunday’s October 13 edition it ran a front page story (Debt Issue is holding Uncle Sam hostage by Dave Helling) saying that the debt limit showdown that, as of this writing, is holding the entire world’s economy hostage to Republican demands. That it’s just another Washington battle in a long line of tit-for-tat politics.
That’s a lie.
The Star knows it and it should know better. It’s bad journalism but, even more troubling, it’s journalism that severely damages our country.
I knew what Helling was going to say as soon as I read the teaser quote written in fair-and-balanced blue – “Both sides have played games with the debt limit.” Yes, this was going to be yet another descent into the increasingly troubling trap of false equivalency.
Sure enough, the story was filled with he-said, she-said reporting.
For every quote suggesting that there is no historical precedent for holding up the debt limit, there’s another saying it’s done all the time.
The truth is this. Although there has been posturing and speechifying around the debt ceiling in the past, and it has been tied to budget deals, it was not until 2011 that the debt ceiling was ever used as a true bargaining tactic to persuade the opposing party to give up concessions.
And the results were disastrous.
The stock market dropped 4%, and for the first time in our history our credit rating was downgraded by Standard & Poors from AAA to AA+. But, the Star treats these events as equal to today’s showdown and downplays any explanation of the differences.
For instance, Helling gives Mo. Sen. Claire McCaskill a paragraph to explain that voting not to raise the debt ceiling has historically been used to “send a message” and not to seriously cause or threaten a default. Yet he then immediately discounts her explanation in the very next paragraph.
There he says that Representative Sam Graves “also takes a situational look at debt votes.” Really? “Situational?” That’s quite an editorial comment that McCaskill’s explanation is merely, “situational.” In fact, it shows that Helling missed the point entirely.
Politicians frequently use meaningless votes to try to refocus the attention of the national debate for a news cycle or two. Yes, it’s political theater, and Republicans are engaging in a lot of political theater right now, from Ted Cruz’s faux filibuster to the barricade-busting World War II protests.
However does anyone think the Republicans today are anything but deadly serious with their threats?
Their actions are demonstrably a break with history; the Star just doesn’t want to take the time to demonstrate it.
What the Helling doesn’t seem to understand is that by trying to seem impartial, by trying to not take a side, he and the Star ARE taking a side. This story – pretending to be a news article – is really an opinion piece, a bit of push journalism that selects its facts not to inform you of the debate but to nudge you to an inevitable conclusion.
In this case, the conclusion is that Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame.
Is that the case? Helling points out that “Obama and congressional Democrats have resisted any debt ceiling compromises, demanding a ‘clean’ debt bill…” He says that Republicans and “some academics” take Obama to task for his unreasonable refusal to negotiate. Helling is surely aware that in 2011 President Obama did negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner, much to the consternation of fellow democrats. Once a deal was reached, Boehner was unable to deliver the votes for their agreed upon Grand Bargain.
Obama is merely correcting his past mistake this time around.
And, really, how can negotiations occur? Negotiation occurs when both sides have something to offer that the other wants. What are Republicans willing to offer Obama that he doesn’t already have? More taxes on the wealthy? Gun control? Immigration reform?
No, all they are offering is a functioning government and a rise in the debt ceiling, both of which they presumably want as well. That’s not negotiation, that’s hostage taking. But the article makes no mention of this.
When the Star calls for a pox on both the Republicans’ and the Democrats’ houses, what they are really doing is providing cover for the disastrous actions of Republicans.
If the Star is going to take the President to task for refusing to negotiate, don’t they have an obligation to explain exactly why he is doing so? Reporting is more than just reporting both sides of an issue. It’s providing the relevant context so that readers can make an informed decision as to the truth of the matter.
In fact, while the mission of journalism is to inform, the value of journalism is that the entire idea of our democratic experiment depends on an informed public for it to work.
When, in a misguided attempt at fairness, journalists ignore facts and context to create the illusion of both sides sharing equal blame, they not only fail to inform. They are then actively misinforming. And as the events of the last few days clearly illustrate, our country cannot function when it is being actively misinformed by its media.