News coverage of the government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis has prompted widespread criticism about how Beltway journalists unnecessarily include Democrats when assigning blame for a shutdown strategy that has been methodically plotted by extremist Republicans for months; a strategy built around making unprecedented demands on the president in exchange for Republican votes for a policy they say they already support.
Eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are responsible for sparking conflict, the press effectively gives Republicans a pass for adopting truly outside-the-norm behavior, such as when senators suggest the United States defaulting on its debt is not cause for concern.
But both-sides-to-blame reporting is really just the public symptom of a larger media malady; the refusal to acknowledge the proud extremism of today's Republican Party. Both-sides-to-blame analysis is a fallback position. It's a soft landing spot for journalists who aren't confident enough to accurately report what's unfolding politically.
The signs of radical change are everywhere inside the Republican Party. The change is being driven by a group of hardcore members and their attempt to grind Obama's presidency, and the federal government, to a halt by refusing to not only compromise with Democrats, but refusing to even speak to them about the federal budget. They include members with an almost evangelical fervor for defaulting on the debt ceiling and who describe it as their defining "Braveheart" moment; their chance to do something "big." They're extremists trying to make governing impossible via procedural sabotage.
Yet many reporters and pundits remain blind to the obvious GOP transformation, or are too timid to spell out the details for news consumers.
As irresponsible Republicans in the House detonate one blockbuster crisis after another, it's becoming clear that the press doesn't know how to deal with this; that it doesn't have the right tools for the job. Most journalists have never seen anything quite like the purposeful dysfunction and chaos that Republicans have plotted, and therefore remain timid and unsure about acknowledging what's really happening.
So instead of clarity, we get the endless regurgitation about how the nation's capital has been paralyzed by a "partisan logjam" (Wall Street Journal), and suffering from "an inability to come together" (NPR contributor Cokie Roberts). See? Both sides are to blame.
The media's laser-like focus on the process of the shutdown drama (who's up and who's down) creates "the distinct possibility that readers aren't grasping just how extreme a position the House Republicans are taking here in the first place," noted Dan Froomkin at the Huffington Post. He's right, because the press isn't explaining how truly extreme House Republicans have become.
Describing truthfully and accurately what's happening while covering the news is perhaps the most important role journalists play in a democracy. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan stressed that point last year. "Particularly in this intensely political season, readers and media critics are calling for journalists to take more responsibility for what is true and what is not," she wrote.
Sullivan added, "Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects."
But as reckless Republicans engineer one possible calamity after another in an effort to short circuit Obama's second term while the press labors to blame both sides, it's clear that journalists aren't following that advice. They're not spelling out what's true and not true. Specifically, they're not telling the truth about the GOP.
And if they're not being honest about Republicans, the press is no longer in a position to referee the shutdown fight.
Why don't journalists tell the truth about Republicans? One reason is there's a professional price to pay. Just ask Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein. Described by the Washington Post as two of the "most respected, committed scholars -- and defenders -- of the U.S. Congress," last year the two wrote a book about he radical streak that ran through the new, Tea Party-influenced Republican Party. With nearly half-a-century of scholarship between them, this was their conclusion one year before Republicans moved to shut down the government and threatened to default on the nation's debt [emphasis added]:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges.
But what happened when the two presented their prescient, unobstructed view of the GOP and its purposeful intransigence? The duo was suddenly shunned by Beltway media outlets that had welcomed them in the past.
Mann and Ornstein stepped forward to accurately describe what was happening to the Republican Party and detailed the calamitous effect it had on governance and democracy, and the mainstream media turned away. The duo seemed to have crossed a Beltway line when they called out Republicans as radicals.
But that's just truth telling. And that's good journalism.