Media Keeps Up False Equivalency Reporting On Government Shutdown

Media outlets continue their campaign of false equivalency to misleadingly assign President Obama an equal share of the blame for not negotiating with Republicans to repeal, defund, or delay the Affordable Care Act to end the government shutdown. But polls show the American people overwhelmingly disapprove of GOP actions that led to the shutdown.

Media Figures Engage In False Balance To Report On Shutdown

Fox's Chris Wallace Says President's Shutdown Conduct, Not Congress', Is “What's Unprecedented.” During an October 6 interview with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said a president “refusing to negotiate” with Congress is “unprecedented”:

WALLACE: All right, you say the consequences would be bad, it would be irresponsible not to act. Despite these stakes, the president -- the president -- refuses to negotiate saying what Republicans are demanding has never happened before.


What's unprecedented is not Congress tying strings. What's unprecedented is the president refusing to negotiate. [Fox News, Fox News Sunday, 10/6/13]

CNN'S Candy Crowley: “Why Wouldn't The President Come To The Negotiating Table?” On the October 6 edition of CNN's State Of The Union, host Candy Crowley asked Treasury Secretary Jack Lew if failing to raise the debt ceiling “is as bad as you say it would be, why wouldn't the president come to the negotiating table?” [CNN,State of the Union, 10/6/13]

CNN's Banfield: “Which One Of You Two Parties Is Going To Let Go So That You Stop Tearing Us Apart?” On the October 8 edition of CNN's Legal View, host Ashleigh Banfield likened America's position during the debt crisis to “Solomon's baby” and asked, “Which one of you two parties is going to let go so that you stop tearing us apart?” [CNN, Legal View, 10/8/13]

Rich Lowry: John Boehner Is Going To Hold Steady Until The President Negotiates -- It's “How These Kind Of Disputes Are Always Settled.” On the October 6 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, National Review editor Rich Lowry suggested that the Republican demand of negotiating is a normal aspect of raising the debt ceiling:

Now, it's true the hand of the House GOP leadership was forced by an element of its rank and file. This is not how they would have set up this fight, they would have gone to the debt limit right away. But now they're in this fight, it's inevitably going to segue into the debt limit and the caucus is united and they want to hold firm until Harry Reid and President Obama actually are willing to negotiate, which is how these kind of disputes are always settled. [NBC, Meet the Press, 10/6/13]

Savannah Guthrie: President Obama Is On Risky Territory By Not Negotiating With GOP. On NBC's Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie said “President Obama is getting on riskier territory” by not negotiating with House Republicans, later asking, “how long can that last? It's really a case of who blinks first”:

GUTHRIE: If [Boehner] would, right now, put a clean budget resolution on the floor of the house there would be enough moderate Republicans and then Democrats to get to the two eighteen votes that they need. But the fact of the matter is Boehner is not going to do that right now and then have to do the same thing two weeks later on the debt ceiling.

So the Republican strategy right now seems to be, merge those two issues together and then if Boehner and the Republicans have to take a tough vote they can do it all once at the same time. But they want some kind of concession from the White House and this is where President Obama is getting on riskier territory. His position has been 'I'm not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling and I'm not going to negotiate on reopening the government.' And how long can that last? It's really a case of who blinks first? [NBC, Today, 10/6/13]

Polls Show Americans Disapprove of GOP Actions During Shutdown

Wash. Post: “Republican Disapproval Grows In Budget Battle.” An October 7 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that disapproval of congressional Republicans grew to 70 percent with more than 50 percent strongly disapproving of their actions. While the poll showed high disapproval for Obama and Democrats, Republicans had the highest disapproval rate before and after the shutdown began:


[The Washington Post, 10/7/13]

Experts Agree GOP's Extreme Position Is To Blame For Congressional Impasse

NY Times: The Extreme Right's “Rigid Ideology Is Proving Toxic For The Most Basic Functioning Of Government.” A New York Times editorial explained that conservative groups like the Club For Growth are pressuring Republican lawmakers to vote to defund the ACA or face well-funded primary opponents. From the editorial:

Club for Growth and other extremist groups consider a record like his an unforgivable failure, and they are raising and spending millions to make sure that no Republicans will take similar positions in the next few weeks when the fiscal year ends and the debt limit expires.

If you're wondering why so many House Republicans seem to believe they can force President Obama to accept a “defunding” of the health care reform law by threatening a government shutdown or a default, it's because these groups have promised to inflict political pain on any Republican official who doesn't go along. [The New York Times9/17/13]

Mann And Ornstein: “A Handful Of Republican Lawmakers Are Speaking Openly About Blackmail” To Defund ACA. The Brookings Institution's Thomas E. Mann and the American Enterprise Institute's Norman J. Ornstein explained in a Washington Post op-ed that GOP lawmakers' obstruction has led to a Congress that fails to get anything done:

Of course, all of this reflects the fact that the House Republican majority is not being run by its leaders but by its most extreme faction, its role amplified by outside media and money. Among those who are less driven by rigid ideology, the threat of a well-financed primary challenge sharply deflates the number of those eligible for Profile in Courage awards -- or willing to risk their congressional careers to get them. [The Washington Post8/29/13]

Huffington Post: Congressional Experts Blame GOP's “Extreme Position” For Shutdown Threat. In the Huffington Post, Dan Froomkin explained that media coverage of the potential government shutdown has ignored Republicans' demands. Froomkin spoke to congressional experts Louis Fischer, Frances E. Lee, and Charles Tiefer, who explained [emphasis in original]:  

Calling it hostage-taking “sounds a little dramatic, but I think it's accurate,” said Louis Fisher, who specialized in the separation of powers over more than three decades at the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress.

Frances E. Lee, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said “it's fair” to describe what Republicans are doing as hostage-taking. “But the legislative process involves a lot of hostage-taking,” she said. “You see it on a smaller scale with presidential nominations -- sometimes even employed against the president by members of his own party.”

In this case, however, what's being held hostage is not an appointment or a specific appropriation, but the entire government.

“It's a form of suicide. You can't function that way,” said Fisher. “If government doesn't function, all sorts of radical things happen. You've got to have a government capable of carrying out basic duties.”

“It's like taking the government employees hostage and saying: 'We won't let them come to work unless we're given what we want,” said Charles Tiefer, law professor at the University of Baltimore and former deputy general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. “It's taking those couple of million of government employees hostage.” [Huffington Post, 9/25/13]

False Equivalency Amounts To Biased Journalism

Time: False Equivalency “Sounds Neutral, But It's Actually Taking A Side.” On October 7, Time magazine's James Poniewozik wrote of the coverage of the government shut down and debt ceiling negotiations, “So here, 'Both sides got us into this mess' sounds neutral, but it's actually taking a side -- or, at least, adopting the framing that one side is counting on using to a political end.” Poniewozik wrote:

[I]n a case like the fiscal crisis, false equivalence matters. It's the difference between reporting an extraordinary event and an ordinary one, which in this case is crucial to how the story plays out politically. It's a matter of whether “not changing current law” becomes redefined as “getting 100% of what you want.” If this is just one more case of those knuckleheads in Washington “digging in their heels,” “playing the blame game,” and so on, it normalizes the situation for the news audience: it sends the tacit message that it is entirely ordinary, every so often, to have a forced debt crisis that reasonable people resolve through “compromise” by renegotiating major pieces of U.S. law. [Time10/7/13]

The Atlantic: Instead Of Resorting To False Equivalency, “The Press Should Recognize Reality.” On October 2, The Atlantic's James Fallows reacted to a Washington Post editorial that blamed House Republicans for the government shutdown -- an opinion that seemed to reverse a previous editorial laying blame at the feet of both sides, writing, “I don't know what can account for this change, but it is a welcome one.” Fallows wrote:

[T]he point here is not, “the press should criticize Republicans.” It is that the press should recognize reality -- and at moments when one party is behaving in extreme ways it should come out and say so, despite the powerful (and admirable-in-its-origins) aversion to seeming to take sides in political disputes. [The Atlantic10/2/13]

Froomkin: “False Equivalence Is Not Just A Failure Of Journalism. It Is Also A Failure Of Democracy.” Dan Froomkin, founder of the Center for Accountability Journalism, commented on the “false equivalence” in U.S. news reports that “are largely blaming the government shutdown on the inability of both political parties to come to terms,” even though “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.' ” Froomkin wrote that “this sort of false equivalence is not just a failure of journalism. It is also a failure of democracy”:

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.


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. [Al Jazeera America, 10/1/13]