Phillip ‘Flip’ Brown: False Equivalency & The Kansas City Star

Dave-Helling-courtesy-archive1.candesnonline.com_The Kansas City Star has done it again…

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.

s-FAIR-BALANCED-largeBut where is the truth? 

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.

Missouri_Senate_0ed7c_image_1024wPoliticians 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.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

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.

1025643_10151507998163403_1781151357_o-1024x1024If 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.

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12 Responses to Phillip ‘Flip’ Brown: False Equivalency & The Kansas City Star

  1. Stomper says:

    Flip, I’m stunned that Hearne found someone to write on the debt issue from the left side of the aisle. Great piece. I can’t wait to read the reasoned and factual (hopefully) comments that come in. I have already identified myself as a democrat in previous comments but I’d like to get the ball rolling here. You omitted the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. I agree the GOP is overwhelmingly responsible for the crisis and the reason I say that is that they insist that negotiations include some degree of rollback of a law that passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the President, and then was affirmed by a Supreme Court controlled by GOP appointees. Don’t try to blame Obama by saying he refuses to negotiate. Let’s negotiate on entitlements, spending, whatever, but why should they hold the country hostage because they can’t stomach the A.C.A.? Did the fact that their 40 attempts to defund the bill fail to get the point across ? They need to focus on winning the Senate and holding on to the House in 2014 and then try to amend or kill the law. I do feel just a bit bad for Boehner as he clearly can’t control his T-Party zealots. I’m sure this will turn a part of the discussion here to “Obamacare” and off the debt ceiling situation but we need to be honest.

    I’m confident I’ll be jumping back in on this one. Good job, Flip, and Hearne as well !!

  2. paulwilsonkc says:

    Great piece; I can’t say it better than my personal favorite commentor, Stomper!
    I do know why Hearne hired you, however. This must have been your “audition” piece, it used the terms “false” and “KC STAR” in the same line…making you golden!
    He was likely over come with giddy ness and never made it past the headline.
    Welcome aboard and VERY well done!

    • harley says:

      nice piece stomper (as in Mongolian stomper)….but you
      rippd everything Wilson said to shreds.
      Idid too…but got no rebuttal back…because the truth wins…

  3. Kerouac says:

    All being (un)fair in love, war & politics, be no heroes this political thriller become fiasco ‘shutdown’, only those embrace blamelessness sporting both D & R behind their names, pure as the driven snow every one them.

    Preamble to a nightmare ‘we the people’, note despite polls, audible voices & narrative same indicating a majority Americans were/be averse Obamacare/ACA, ram it down collective throats the clown in chief/his ilk did, Pelosi’s “you have to pass it to find out what’s in it” the antithesis of transparency.

    After that, the GOP can likewise do whatever they want, this ‘game’ (with apologies to Boehner) of suicide chess.

    • Stomper says:

      Kerouac; First off, great name !! A bit of a hero to me so if you intended to honor Jack by the use of his name as your moniker, you have already earned substantial credibility with me.

      Secondly, again I agree that both sides of the aisle are to blame. Just because I’m a democrat doesn’t mean I am willing to ignore that a lot of slimeballs have a D behind their name in Congress.

      Yep, a majority of people in the country are against the ACA, just like a majority of Americans negatively rate the performance of the republicans in the house ( democrats too but by a slightly lower margin) but we are stuck with them also. That’s the nature of the game in DC and around the country. Over the years, the GOP has rammed things down the throats of citizens as well. The will of the majority will eventually win out at election time and that’s the way to make change happen. My only complaint here is that using a law that is unpopular with the House republicans (mostly tea party zealots) to hold the country hostage is not appropriate. I have absolutely no problem with using spending, entitlements, or other philosophies going forward to negotiate. Both sides should realize that this game they played caused serious damage to our economy. The game should be about compromise and in the end, they all need to realize they were sent to Washington to do a job for the country as a whole, not just to improve their chances at the next election.

      Again, I feel like I have hijacked Flip here since he didn’t mention the ACA but since I’m a political junkie and the topic has been broached here, I’m going to take the opportunity to toss out a couple of questions for everyone to think about. My purpose is to hopefully to show that no matter which side of the aisle we are on, there is probably a lot of common ground we share and we shouldn’t get too attached or detached to/from individual personalities. To me it is not about whether we like or dislike Obama, it’s about how we see the role of government.

      Question # 1. Before ACA was proposed, do you think there was a problem with the cost and delivery of healthcare in the United States and if there was, should the private sector been allowed to address it without the involvement of the government?

      Question # 2. Is access to health care a right or a privilege in your opinion?

      Kerouac, thanks for the chance to piggy-back on your comment to spew my own rhetoric. Got a feeling I’ll be back to opine but I hope to generate a little polite and reasoned discourse on a very important topic.

  4. harley says:

    flipper….ahhhh ahhhhhhh ahhhhhh…if you’re good hearne and Wilson
    throw you dead raw fish at dinnertime.
    heres the facts flipper (ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhh)
    the prez beat the sh*t out of the poor republicans while they cut
    each others throat. the end is near for the repubs…one final chance…2014..
    then never another republican president in our history (I imagine you’re
    probably 80 years in fish life whatever that is)…..
    the rape pubicans are doomed for the trash can of history. Too bad uness
    their moderates take back the party with the money and powe r that the
    moderates had originally.
    I’m getting word not only locally…but statewide…and national sources
    that the rappublican party is splitting at the seams….they play ed
    the game for a while till the moderates realized these t party boobs were
    freaking crazy nuts.]
    Now they must exterminate them like roaches…if not…its all
    out internal war in the party.
    And boy will that be fun…i’m buying popcorn and some kush
    for this battle…gonna be a big one.
    glad to have ya flipper (aaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh aaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhh)
    …if you’re a good fin ya get from trout from hearne!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Neurodawg says:

    Really Harley ? You lost me at the first aaaaaaahhhhhh. But good to think about the Republican Party coming apart at the seams.

  6. harley says:


  7. neurodawg says:

    oh i get it harley- you are not just weird but also really old. poor thing- you must feel misunderstood a lot.-

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