Newspaper reporting of looming debt ceiling crisis fell horribly short
Reporting from 5 of the nation’s leading newspapers left out crucial context informing readers about the dire stakes of Republican brinkmanship
A Media Matters analysis of reporting on the looming debt ceiling crisis from five of the nation’s leading newspapers — USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — revealed that their collective reporting frequently lacked important context to inform readers about the Republican-manufactured crisis, which could imperil the American economy and the global financial system if it is not resolved.
From May 1 — the day Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen issued a letter to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) warning that the debt ceiling would be breached in one month’s time — through May 12, these newspapers published 78 stories focused on the debt ceiling for their millions of collective readers. The Washington Post (23), The New York Times (22), and The Wall Street Journal (20) held a distinct advantage over the Los Angeles Times (8) and USA Today (5) in the sheer number of articles published on the subject. Though there was some noticeable variation in the quality and quantity of coverage from each respective outlet, their reporting largely missed the opportunity to adequately inform readers about the contours of the current debt ceiling crisis:
- Just 6 articles (8%) mentioned that Republicans increased the current national debt significantly through their own tax and spending decisions, or mentioned that Republicans ran high annual budget deficits during the Trump administration.
- Just 15 articles (19%) mentioned that Republicans routinely raised or suspended the debt ceiling during the Trump administration, or that Democrats supported those efforts.
- Just 15 articles (19%) correctly mentioned that Republicans are responsible for the looming debt ceiling crisis due to their own intransigence and brinkmanship.
- Just under half (36 articles, or 46%) mentioned draconian cuts to federal spending being proposed by Republicans, in exchange for a debt ceiling increase.
- A majority (49 articles, or 63%) suggested that Republicans plan to default on U.S. sovereign debt obligations if the GOP’s demands for substantive spending cuts and budget changes are not met.
Republican tax and spending priorities have ballooned the national debt
The overwhelming majority of these five newspapers’ coverage of the debt ceiling during the studied time period failed to acknowledge that Republican tax and spending priorities are primarily responsible for the recent increase in the national debt. They also failed to mention that the same congressional Republicans who are now demanding spending cuts of President Joe Biden were largely complacent when then-President Donald Trump ran historic annual budget deficits during his tenure in office.
None of the qualified reporting from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or USA Today (the nation’s three largest newspapers by circulation) reminded readers of the role Republicans have played in running up deficits. Reporting from the Los Angeles Times mentioned this just once (13% of the paper’s qualified coverage), and The Washington Post mentioned it just 5 times (22%).
According to PolitiFact, since the end of World War II, “just over 60% of the growth in the debt took place under Republican presidents, and about 40% under Democratic presidents.” More recently, the Trump administration oversaw nearly as much debt accumulation in just four years as the preceding Obama administration witnessed in two full terms. Readers deserve to know that the same Republican Party that is today demanding restraint from Democrats had no qualms about fiscally irresponsible tax cuts and unsustainable spending when they were in power just a few short years ago.
Republicans allowed the debt ceiling to be raised under Trump
Since 1960, Congress has voted 78 times to raise, suspend, or revise the debt ceiling, according to the Treasury Department. Forty-nine of these have occurred under Republican presidential administrations, with the other 29 coming during Democratic presidencies. The debt ceiling was raised or suspended three times during the Trump administration alone through bipartisan congressional action (in 2017, 2018, and 2019), a fact glaringly omitted from the vast majority of newspaper coverage for the 2023 debt ceiling stalemate. In each case, the debt ceiling authorizations were paired with spending increases, in the form of disaster relief or relaxation of discretionary spending caps imposed by prior legislation, rather than the types of spending cuts currently being demanded by Republicans.
None of the qualified reporting from the right-leaning Wall Street Journal mentioned the recent history of bipartisan support of lifting the debt ceiling. These facts were presented in just 2 articles each from the Los Angeles Times and USA Today — 25% and 40% of their total coverage, respectively. The New York Times mentioned this recent history in just 3 articles (14%), and The Washington Post published 8 articles containing this important context (35%).
Republicans are to blame for manufacturing this debt ceiling crisis
There is absolutely no question who is responsible for the looming debt ceiling crisis: Republicans in Congress.
Beginning in 1995 and accelerating since 2011, congressional Republicans have repeatedly used the debt ceiling to manufacture economic crises during Democratic presidential administrations, hoping to use the catastrophic threat of a Treasury default to exact painful spending cuts.
The vast majority of qualifying newspaper coverage of the debt ceiling fight has somehow neglected to inform readers of these obvious facts. USA Today never included this crucial context in any of its debt ceiling coverage, while The Wall Street Journal mentioned it just twice (10%). Both The Washington Post and The New York Times mentioned that Republicans are to blame for the current crisis in 5 articles (22% and 23%, respectively). The Los Angeles Times mentioned this context 3 times (38%).
Republicans demand devastating budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling
Once again, Republicans are demanding substantial spending cuts and budgetary restrictions in exchange for temporarily raising the debt ceiling before the Treasury defaults on the national debt.
McCarthy’s proposal would cut federal spending by $4.5 trillion in exchange for temporarily raising the debt ceiling through March 2024 — meaning the entire debacle of these negotiations would be revived all over again, and at the outset of an election year. McCarthy’s proposal would impose strict budget caps on spending, which the Center for American Progress projected could result in an average reduction by as much as 58% over the next decade for nondefense discretionary spending.
The proposal would also repeal key environmental provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, loosen permitting restrictions on fossil fuels, and claw back unspent funds appropriated to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, it would also force policy proposals championed by the GOP’s right-wing media allies: rescinding Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, defunding a plan to ramp up tax enforcement at the IRS, and creating unnecessary work requirements for federal aid programs.
Some outlets performed better than others but as a whole, less than half of the qualifying newspaper coverage of the debt ceiling fight detailed the devastating budget cuts Republicans have demanded. Just 7 articles from The Wall Street Journal (35% of its total coverage) mentioned these facts, while USA Today included this context just twice (40%). The Washington Post and New York Times each included these details in 11 articles (48% and 50%, respectively). A majority of articles covering the debt ceiling published by the Los Angeles Times included this context (5 articles, or 63%).
Republican brinkmanship could result in a catastrophic debt default
According to an analysis from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, a complete breach of the debt limit leading to “protracted default” could cost the economy up to 8.3 million jobs, pushing unemployment up from historic lows by as much as 5%, while reducing economic growth in the third quarter of the year by 6.1%. In essence, failing to raise the debt ceiling and defaulting on the national debt could create an economic crisis on par with the Great Recession. A recent analysis by Moody’s Analytics predicted that a full default on the national debt would create that “deep recession” with effects that could linger for more than a decade.
This dire scenario, defaulting on the national debt, is what Republicans have promised to do if their demands are not met. They were joined in their intransigence on May 10 when Trump encouraged the GOP to rush headlong into a debt default. (Trump even admitted that this contradicted the position he took during his time in office, arguing that Republicans should embrace the chaos of a debt default "because now I'm not president.”)
While the percentage of articles from The Wall Street Journal and USA Today mentioning this crucial context lagged behind their competitors, a majority of qualifying newspaper coverage included some suggestion that Republicans in Congress would default on the national debt if their demands were not met. USA Today and The Wall Street Journal each mentioned this fact in 40% of their articles on the debt ceiling (2 and 8 articles, respectively). The Los Angeles Times mentioned this in 5 articles (63%), while The Washington Post mentioned it in 15 articles (65%). The New York Times set the standard among its competitors, mentioning the threat of a GOP-manufactured debt default 19 times (86%).
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for any of the terms “debt,” “deficit,” “shutdown,” or “borrowing cap” or any variation of the term “default,” within the same headline or lead paragraphs as any of the terms “Biden,” “Yellen,” “administration,” “Treasury,” “fiscal,” “U.S.,” “United States,” “government,” “crisis,” “ceiling,” or “limit” or any variation of any of the terms “economy,” “financial, or “fund” from May 1, 2023, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen informed congressional leaders that the U.S. government could default on its obligations as soon as June 1, through May 12, 2023.
We included articles, which we defined as instances when the deficit, debt ceiling, or possible government shutdown were mentioned in the headline or lead paragraphs. We did not include letters-to-the-editor or news roundups.
We then reviewed all identified articles for whether they mentioned or suggested that Republicans raised the debt ceiling pro forma during the Trump administration or that Democrats supported Republican debt-ceiling suspensions or increases during the Trump administration; which programs Republicans are proposing to cut; that all but six Republicans plan to allow the government to default on its obligations if demands for substantive spending and budget reforms aren’t met; or that Republicans have increased the national debt significantly or ran high deficits during the Trump administration. We also tracked whether articles blamed Republicans for the looming financial crisis.