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Media Blows Debt Crisis Coverage With Balance Bias

Posted: 07/28/11 01:51 AM ET

Balance Bias (bal-ance bi-as)
1. The assumption that there is truth and legitimacy to both sides of every dispute.
2. The iron law in political journalism that one side in a debate can never be exclusively right, or have a monopoly on the facts.


This increasingly disorderly fight over raising the debt ceiling has not only exposed the petty dysfunctions of the US Congress, it has also revealed a core failure of American political journalism. The press has made the debt fight the top story for the last two weeks—even accounting for half of all stories on radio and cable news—but much of the coverage has failed to tell the very basics of what is happening.

I don’t mean how this deficit was created (by tax cuts, Medicare and recessions), or why the debt ceiling gets raised (in response to past decisions by Congress). That stuff matters, but at bottom, this is a story about politics, not the bond market.

This fight started with a partisan threat to sabotoge the economy in order to extract policy concessions, but then, when Democrats offered most of the concessions, it ricocheted and morphed into something else: a high-stakes lightning round of intramural GOP posturing. Right now, we are living through a Republican primary for economic policy. The results may hurt the nation—an externality that Republicans have widely acknowledged, lending bite to their bark—and no one seems to know what you do with an army that wants to keep fighting after there’s no land left to conquer.

One might quibble with some details and word choices, but that’s the basic story. It’s gripping, it’s scary, and it’s not anything close to the press’s story about this debt fight. Take this headline, running at the top of CNN a day after President Obama’s national address:

“They’re all talking, but no one is compromising, at least publicly. Democratic and GOP leaders appear unwilling to bend on proposals to raise the debt ceiling.”

Journalist Josh Marshall confronted that bizarro narrative with evidence of what’s actually happening. “By any reasonable measure, this [CNN headline] is simply false, even painfully so,” he notes, adding, “even the firebreathers on the Republican side" are not suggesting otherwise. Marshall reports that over $2 trillion in cuts is the current offer from Senator Reid, which is actually larger and more “Republican-leaning than what Speaker Boehner was demanding a few months ago.” And the Reid plan—which could just as accurately be called the Super Sized Boehner plan—does not include any revenues, which was “the primary demand of Republicans from the beginning.”

Whether you think it’s good or bad, we have just seen one party’s leadership embrace the platform of the opposing party, only to watch that party apparently back off its own original position. That’s news! Marshall continues:

It is not partisan or spin to say that the Democrats have repeatedly offered compromises. The real driver of the debate is that the fact that Republican majority in the House can’t agree to win... The real problem at the moment isn’t that neither side’s caucus can accept the other side’s ‘plan’ - [it's] that Speaker Boehner doesn’t have the votes in his caucus for his own ‘plan’.

That reality, however, is deeply uncomfortable for reporters nursing Balance Bias. Saying that “Washington is broken” or “both sides are squabbling” is easy. It is safe. And it’s often true, since structural problems hinder our democracy regardless of which party is in power, and politics is full of petty, meaningless bickering. But not on this one. New York magazine’s Jon Heilemann, an accomplished author and astute political analyst, fell into the habit this week, when he was asked why there’s still no debt deal. The “ideological convictions of two sides have proven to be unshakable,” he observed. It was as if Reid and Boehner were at opposite ends of the table, when Reid actually took Boehner’s seat. Over at The Times, Economist Paul Krugman observes that most news accounts portrary this “as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent—because news reports always do that.” This conventional wisdom was sealed a few weeks ago by Jon Stewart, who gingerly knocked both parties, with false equivalency, for stoking their own equally horrific political endgames. (Never mind that only one party was making threats; the video is below.)

So why does this ur-text keep trumping the facts?

Let’s turn to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a prolific media critic who has a theory, developed in a series of essays that are both elegant and reproachful, that today’s political reporters are on a futile “quest for innocence” when reporting political disputes. By innocence, Rosen means “a determination not to be implicated, enlisted or seen by the public as involved.” I asked him how that works on this debt story.

“Asymmetry in a highly contested situation fries the circuits of the press,” Rosen said via e-mail this week. “The bigger the stakes, the more dangerous it feels for reporters to reflect that asymmetry in their accounts,” he proposed. That makes sense, since often it’s “the big lie” that gets more traction than little fibs. So the political press rebuted Sarah Palin’s spin about opposing “The Bridge to Nowhere” in 2008, a low-stakes example, but they back down on a market-shaking feud like the debt fight. And Rosen suggests that while Democrats or Talking Points Memo or Eugene Robinson may call out the problem, that doesn’t actually do much.

“The people screaming about an asymmetrical situation that has been artificially balanced are likely to be on one side of the contested ground, right? This fries the circuits even more, adding to the danger [for innocent reporters],” he says. This is also your brain on Balance Bias.

Rosen believes that the worst offenders in media literally care more about maintaining their innocence than their first obligation of accuracy. “Our press has an unacknowledged agenda: to advertise itself as an innocent player in politics, to show off how even-handed it is always being,” he argues. “It will put that agenda before truthtelling. But since nothing can come before truthtelling, the agenda stays hidden, repressed.”

That’s a pretty compelling theory. Balance Bias is somewhat lower on the continuum, I think, because reporters can practice it without repressing anything. They may even oppose the concept but follow its rules, knowing that their editors or management will not accept a political story about one side being completely wrong. Or irrational. Or irresponsible. Because that “can’t be the whole story!”

And if you believe that, then your only response to the endgame of the debt crisis is total denial. That may be human, but it ain’t journalism.


Originally published at The Nation.

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