CNN's Blame-Both-Sides Shutdown Coverage Flopped

How out of whack, at times, was CNN's coverage of the GOP's radical move to shut down the government and to flirt with defaulting on American's debt? So puzzling that when news broke on October 16 that a deal would be struck to avoid a catastrophic default, CNN's Ashleigh Banfield turned to her guest, Democratic Congressman James Clyburn, and blamed him for the two-week shutdown [emphasis added]:

BANFIELD: Forgive me for not popping the champagne corks, because while we're celebrating this breaking news that there's a deal, it's just a temporary deal. We're still nowhere near a solution to the crisis that the United States of America finds itself in because of people like you and your other colleagues on the Hill.

Wait, what?

It's well known that when confronted with political turmoil created by Republicans, the Beltway press prefers to blame both political parties. (i.e. “Congress” is dysfunctional!) That way journalists are not seen as taking sides, and they're inoculated from cries of liberal media bias. But if ever there were a test case for when it was plain both sides were not to blame, the shutdown was it.

Engineered entirely by Republicans, Democrats like Clyburn were forced to become spectators as they watched a civil war unfold within the Republican Party between its far-right Tea Party allies, who insisted on adopting a radical strategy, and the rest of the GOP. Or course, several prominent Republican politicians pinned blame squarely on their colleagues for the recent mess. 

The shutdown was a crisis orchestrated by Republicans. Period. 

Congressional Democrats played virtually no role in the procedural sabotage, except as shocked observers. Yet there was Ashleigh Banfield blaming a Democrat (as well as all Democrats and Republicans) for causing so much turmoil inside Washington, D.C. The skewed commentary fit in with the fact that CNN regularly suggested President Obama was a central cause of the tumultuous shutdown because he wasn't willing to just sit down and work out a deal with his political foes.

CNN occupies an important place within the media landscape. Priding itself on a down-the-middle approach to news and political commentary, the channel helps shape conventional wisdom and sets the common boundaries for news events. But by so effortlessly adopting the Republican spin that Obama and Democrats shouldered all kinds of blame for the shutdown, CNN became part of the media problem.

I realize that during the 16 days of the shutdown CNN likely aired well over 100 hours of coverage, and I'm not suggesting it was all off-kilter. (Here, Wolf Blitzer does a good job pushing back on Republican rhetoric that Obamacare will “destroy” America.) But too often, the network claimed the shutdown proved Republicans and Democrats were incapable of governing.

The all-news channel began beating the blame-both-sides drum early on. From a September 23 report: "If the Democrats and Republicans don't stop bickering and agree to how the U.S. should pay its bills, the federal government will shut down, come October 1." [Emphasis added]

That drumbeat continued to the very end. The night the shutdown ended, Gloria Borger described “Congress” (not the Republican Party) as a “crisis-activated institution.” Of course, Borger couldn't point to any evidence that suggested Democrats concoct one government crisis after another the way Republicans now do.

CNN often rallied around the GOP talking point that Obama ought to “negotiate” with Republicans because give-and-take is what politics (and compromise) is all about. “Why won't the president come to the negotiating table?” Candy Crowley wondered, while CNN's Carol Costello asked “Why doesn't the president pick up the phone and call John Boehner?”

On the surface that sounds like a reasonable question, and no doubt it represented the centrist position CNN felt comfortable championing, as it hyped its watchdog role of holding both parties accountable. But the query only worked if CNN anchors and reporters completely disregarded the facts of the unfolding shutdown and flushed all the context down the memory hole.

The why-won't-Obama-compromise storyline simply ignored the fact that Obama had already compromised regarding the budget and that at the last minute Republicans demanded that in order for them to okay the budget deal they had already agreed to, Obama needed to defund his signature legislative accomplishment of his first term, a bill that was passed into law three years ago.

Viewed in full context, the Republican demand was utterly extremist and without precedent in modern Congressional history. Too often though, CNN ignored that defining fact. Instead, CNN offered up a more simplistic, blame-both-sides version where Obama starred as an obstinate protagonist who arrogantly refused to deal with his Republican counterparts.

So there was an agitated Banfield demanding to know, “which one of you two parties is going to let go so that you stop tearing us apart?” (Democrats were tearing the country apart by trying to keep the government open?)

Meanwhile, CNN analyst Ana Navarro announced, “Both sides need to come to the table and they need to be rational about a real solution and do it quickly.” On Crossfire, the looming question was, “Are both sides demanding too much?” And Blitzer posed the same question: “Are both sides digging in right now?”

CNN's Don Lemon, addressing a Democratic guest, said “Your party said that they won't negotiate, that they won't compromise, but that's what politics is all about, right? Why can't we find a middle ground with Republicans here?” The odd part, as Crooks and Liars pointed out, was that Lemon had already acknowledged during a radio interview that Republicans were entirely to blame for engineering the shutdown. But on CNN, Lemon blamed both sides for not finding a “middle ground” solution.

And then there was CNN host Piers Morgan who regularly castigated Obama for essentially not talking Republicans out of their radically stubborn and dysfunctional ways.  “It's easy to say we'll blame Ted Cruz, blame the Republicans and so on,” Morgan noted during the shutdown. “But it comes a point when the commander-in- chief has to take charge and try and prevent the country being damaged as best he can.”

On Twitter, Morgan pushed his theory that Obama was able, but unwilling, to end the shutdown.

None of that CNN coverage reflected the stark reality of the shutdown, which was that one party lost sight of common sense and decided to sabotage the federal government.  

The irony in all of this is that at the outset of the shutdown crisis, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources and stressed that the story was really about the Republican Party. “What we are witnessing in Washington to a large extent is an internal fight within the Republican Party,” said Lizza. “I think it's hard for mainstream reporters to sort of say that because we want most issues to be nice and tidy: Democrats and Republicans are equally to blame.”

Unfortunately, not enough people at CNN heeded that wise advice.