American 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 US 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.
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 importantly, we count 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.
It’s a long read, but it’s worth it. The only hope we have of the 4th estate acting as a check on power is if enough people get fed up with this shit and make them pay in ratings and revenue.
…it’s not much hope, to be sure, but at least it’s something.