A man reads morning newspapers from around the U.S. at the Newseum in Washington, Oct. 1, 2013. Gary Cameron/Reuters
U.S. news reports are largely blaming the government shutdown on the inability of both political parties to come to terms. It is supposedly the result of a "bitterly divided" Congress that "failed to reach agreement" (Washington Post) or "a bitter budget standoff" left unresolved by "rapid-fire back and forth legislative maneuvers" (New York Times). This sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism. It is also a failure of democracy.
When the political leadership of this country is incapable of even keeping the government open, a political course correction is in order. But how can democracy self-correct if the public does not understand where the problem lies? And where will the pressure for change come from if journalists do not hold the responsible parties accountable?
The truth of what happened Monday night, as almost all political reporters know full well, is that "Republicans staged a series of last-ditch efforts to use a once-routine budget procedure to force Democrats to abandon their efforts to extend U.S. health insurance." (Thank you, Guardian.)
And holding the entire government hostage while demanding the de facto repeal of a president's signature legislation and not even bothering to negotiate is by any reasonable standard an extreme political act. It is an attempt to make an end run around the normal legislative process. There is no historical precedent for it. The last shutdowns, in 1995 and 1996, were not the product of unilateral demands to scrap existing law; they took place during a period of give-and-take budget negotiations.
But the political media's aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, reading the news would not help you understand.
What makes all this more than a journalistic failure is that the press plays a crucial role in our democracy. We count on the press to help create an informed electorate. And perhaps even more important, we rely on the press to hold the powerful accountable.
That requires calling out political leaders when they transgress or fail to meet commonly agreed-upon standards: when they are corrupt, when they deceive, when they break the rules and refuse to govern. Such exposure is the first consequence. When the transgressions are sufficiently grave, what follows should be continued scrutiny, marginalization, contempt and ridicule.
In the current political climate, journalistic false equivalence leads to an insufficiently informed electorate, because the public is not getting an accurate picture of what is going on.
But the lack of accountability is arguably even worse because it has the characteristics of a cascade failure. When the media coverage seeks down-the-middle neutrality despite one party's outlandish conduct, there are no political consequences for their actions. With no consequences for extremism, politicians who have succeeded using such conduct have an incentive to become even more extreme. The more extreme they get, the further the split-the-difference press has to veer from common sense in order to avoid taking sides. And so on.
The political press should be the public's first line of defense when it comes to assessing who is deviating from historic norms and practices, who is risking serious damage to the nation, whose positions are based in irrational phobias and ignorance rather than data and reason.
Instead journalists have been suckered into embracing "balance" and "neutrality" at all costs, and the consequences of their choice in an era of political extremism will only get worse and worse.
One of the great ironies of the current dynamic is that political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who for decades were conventional voices of plague-on-both-your-houses centrism, have now become among the foremost critics of a press corps that fails to report the obvious. They describe the modern Republican Party, without any hesitation, as "a party beholden to ideological zealots."
But as Mann explained in an interview last year, "The mainstream press really has such a difficult time trying to cope with asymmetry between the two parties' agendas and connections to facts and truth."
Even with a story as straightforward as the government shutdown, splitting the difference remains the method of choice for the political reporters and editors in Washington's most influential news bureaus. Even when they surely know better. Even when many Republican elected officials have criticized their own leaders for being too beholden to the more radical right wing.
Media critics — and members of the public — have long decried this kind of he-said-she-said reporting. The Atlantic's James Fallows, one of the most consistent chroniclers and decriers of false equivalence, describes it as the "strong tendency to give equal time and credence to varying 'sides' of a story, even if one of the sides is objectively true and the other is just made up."
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that truth telling has been surpassed as a newsroom priority by a neither-nor impartiality he calls the "view from nowhere."
Blaming everyone — Congress, both sides, Washington — is simply the path of least resistance for today's political reporters. It's a way of avoiding conflict rather than taking the risk that the public — or their editors — will accuse them of being unprofessionally partisan.
But making a political judgment through triangulation — trying to stake out a safe middle ground between the two political parties — is still making a political judgment. It is often just not a very good one. And in this case, as in many others, it is doing the country a grave disservice.
So, no, the shutdown is not generalized dysfunction or gridlock or stalemate. It is aberrational behavior by a political party that is willing to take extreme and potentially damaging action to get its way. And by not calling it what it is, the political press is enabling it.
We need a more fearless media.