Mainstream media put price before substance in coverage of Democratic negotiations over budget bills
Mainstream outlets focused on political infighting rather than provisions, including historic investments in universal pre-K, expanded Medicare, and clean energy
In their recent coverage of Democratic negotiations over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills before Congress, some mainstream media outlets prioritized discussion of the price of the bills rather than the historic provisions they contained; depicted the Democrats missing an arbitrary deadline as a disaster for President Joe Biden and the party; and placed blame for stalled discussions on progressive members of the House Democratic Caucus.
On September 30, House Democrats delayed a planned vote on an infrastructure bill due to infighting over a separate budget reconciliation bill that would fund historic social programs and efforts to fight climate change. House Democrats are working to pass a 10-year spending bill that would fund free community college, clean energy projects, Medicare expansions, universal pre-K, and the United States’ first federal paid medical and family leave policy. To pass, the bill would need the votes of all 50 Democrats in the Senate. Moderate Democrats -- particularly Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona -- have decried both the bill’s provisions and its $3.5 trillion price tag, stalling negotiations and demanding cuts of around $2 trillion. Progressives, objecting to the moderates’ proposed revisions, said they would not support the infrastructure bill unless moderates got on board with the reconciliation bill. Democratic leaders in Congress now say they hope to pass both bills by the end of October.
Media emphasizing the price tag rather than the bill’s contents
On September 30 and October 1, mainstream media coverage of the negotiations tended to focus on political infighting and discussions about the reconciliation bill’s proposed price tag, often neglecting its content.
- While he was discussing a September 30 editorial by The Wall Street Journal that argued that Joe Manchin was staging an “intervention to save the Democratic Party, and the country, from the left,” host Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe said that he saw the logic in the editorial and that progressives were claiming the $3.5 trillion was already a compromise, “after we have a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill ready to be passed now and we spent over a trillion dollars last year. For most Americans, that’s starting to add up to real money.” While this segment made mention of the bill’s provisions, much of the time was taken up with discussions of its price tag.
- On the October 1 edition of CNN’s Early Start, as co-anchor Laura Jarrett was saying progressives see the $3.5 trillion cost as a compromise, CNN White House correspondent John Harwood said, “It’s still a lot of money, though.” Jarrett replied, “It’s a huge amount of money.”
- Speaking on CNN’s Inside Politics, congressional correspondent Lauren Fox described Sinema as “fiercely independent just like Joe Manchin is” and said she “has some real concerns about some of the ways that you raise revenue.”
- While NPR has run stories detailing various aspects of the reconciliation bill, some of its coverage of the negotiations process left out key details about the programs at stake. One story referred to the reconciliation bill simply as a “social spending package,” focusing on the money involved: “Moderate Democrats have said they do not support the top-line figure of $3.5 trillion. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., reiterated Thursday that he's willing to go as high as $1.5 trillion.”
Media suggesting Democrats missing deadline was a disaster
In the process of centering the political aspects of the story rather than the substantial impacts the bills could have, mainstream media also latched onto a questionable narrative that the delay spelled disaster for the Democrats. The deadline for a vote on the infrastructure bill was previously set for September 27 and based roughly around the expiration of a highway funding package the legislation would help fund that has since been separately extended. Many sources claimed that failing to meet the self-set deadline of September 30 was a significant blow for the Democratic Party and Biden’s agenda, despite the largely arbitrary nature of the date.
- MSNBC’s José Díaz Balart said on his show that missing the deadline was a “major blow to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
- On CNN, New Day co-anchor John Berman described the delayed vote as “for Democrats a huge problem, embarrassment, humiliation — those are the words being tossed around this morning, and all self-inflicted at that.”
- Ana Cabrera, co-anchor of CNN Newsroom, opened her segment on the voting delay by saying that “warring factions of the party threaten to tear apart President Biden's agenda.”
- The Guardian ran an article headlined “Pelosi delays vote on Biden’s infrastructure bill in defeat for Democrats” that described a “stinging defeat after progressives threatened to revolt and Democratic leaders failed to reach an agreement with centrists holdouts.”
- The New York Times said the delay showed “the era of productive Democratic unity is now in doubt — as is President Biden’s domestic agenda.”
Media blaming progressives for negotiation difficulties
Most coverage evenly divided blame for the delay between the progressive caucus and the moderate elements of the party. However, some sources laid blame primarily on progressives and their attempts to preserve the vital programs the legislation contained, despite months of obstruction from Manchin and Sinema, who sought to dramatically downsize the Biden-backed legislation. When joined with the sparsity of discussion on the substance of the bills, this revealed a larger pattern of disregard some outlets displayed for the immense impact this legislation could have for the American people.
- CNN’s John Berman, co-anchor of New Day, suggested progressives were risking not passing any reconciliation bill to achieve their preferred version of the legislation. He described their “negotiating position” as “if you don't give me what I want, then I won't give me what I want,” adding it was “a tough place to start from but that's where they were.”
- On CNN Newsroom, guest co-anchor Erica Hill said the “progressive Democrats continue to resist fierce pressure from within the caucus,” adding that “the party's far-left wing” was “refusing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill.”
- On CNN’s Early Start, co-anchor Laura Jarrett fixated on correspondence from Manchin sent to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier this year in which Manchin proposed limiting the reconciliation bill to $1.5 trillion. Jarrett used this to suggest Manchin had “been pretty clear” about his spending limit and to shift blame to progressives, saying that “we’ve known this number but progressives apparently didn't get the memo on it.”
- Axios ran a glowing article on Sinema, addressing those “trying to bully the wine-drinking triathlete into supporting President Biden's $3.5 trillion budget bill” and publishing her claims that she had made Biden and Schumer “fully aware of [her] priorities, concerns and ideas” prior to negotiations. The article also uncritically ran claims made by Sinema regarding the economic fallout of the bill, including assertions that “increasing the rate on corporations' international profits ... could harm their competitiveness.”
Taken together, these narratives foreground dramatic political battles and big price tags, while failing to meet the information needs of everyday readers. They center money, rather than people, as the most important consideration in legislative debates. Cost-centered framing portrays provisions of the bill such as universal pre-K, expanded health care coverage, and paid family leave -- which other wealthy countries adopted or exceeded long ago -- as pricey extras, rather than basic rights.
Media coverage exaggerating the importance of the self-imposed September 30 deadline -- and implying that missing it constitutes a disaster for Democrats -- suggests that meeting the arbitrary deadline is more important than preserving the social programs at stake. Meanwhile, narratives that blame progressives for the delayed vote fail to examine why moderate Democrats object to basic social services and environmental programs.
Ultimately, by pushing these narratives about the negotiations, mainstream media missed an opportunity to comprehensively inform their audiences about how the proposed reconciliation bill would impact them, their children, and people across the U.S.